Horse Racing / Sports

Wicked Strong runs to restore once-struggling farm

ELMONT, N.Y. -- The pressure of living up to expectations has been an ongoing theme for one contender in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. Don Little Jr. has not been at the center of such talk, but the president of Centennial Farms could give the connections of California Chrome a clinic on what it feels like to have a legacy on the line.

It has been well documented that Centennial Farms' Wicked Strong runs for something greater than victory or defeat, with 5 percent of his Triple Crown earnings benefiting victims of last year's Boston Marathon bombing.

Being a charitable force is not a new role for Wicked Strong. By carrying the silks founded by Little's father back to the top echelon of his sport, Wicked Strong is doing his part in another sense to help restore what nearly went tragically awry.

"I'll be more nervous for sure," Little said of his colt's scheduled start in the final leg of the Triple Crown. "There is some paternal pressure from above."

Centennial Farms has used the 12-furlong Belmont to hit a peak before. In 1993, the Massachusetts-based ownership group founded by Don Little Sr. in 1982 won the race with Colonial Affair. The win transcended the sport as it made Julie Krone the first, and still only, female jockey to win a Triple Crown race.

Regardless if Wicked Strong can thwart California Chrome's attempt to become just the 12th Triple Crown winner with a victory in the 146th Belmont Stakes, he is successfully carrying the torch for the restructured version of Centennial Farms that has emerged since Little Sr. died in February 2012. Little died from injuries he sustained in a show-jumping fall in while competing in Wellington, Fla.

His death came only a couple months after Little Jr. emerged from rehabilitation for substance abuse problems. Little Jr. wanted to keep his father's operation going, but finding the financial and emotional support to do so was another task.

"Nine months ago, I didn't know what I was going to do," said Little Jr., who has been president of Centennial since 1990. "I knew what I wanted to do. But there were certain constraints and limits to what I wanted to do, and I didn't want to go out and continue without the financial support and the people behind me.

"My mom (Judy) wasn't going to back it. She didn't feel that buying horses when she had grandkids she wanted to send through private school and college was the smartest investment," he continued. "After a period of time, she agreed to support half of it. And once the restructuring was done, it was full steam ahead."

Along with the death of Little Sr., two of Centennial's biggest clients passed away during a two-year period, costing the operation "about 80 percent of its business," Little Jr. recalled.

Without a line of credit and desperation palpable, a meeting Little took last August in downtown Saratoga, N.Y., with a couple of old comrades provided more than just time for catching up. Peter and Peggy Horvitz, who have been involved with Centennial since 1989, agreed to join with Little to form the revamped Centennial Farms LLC.

The Horvitzes had met with Little Sr. just days before his death to discuss how to kick-start the farm, which has campaigned such standouts as 2007 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile winner Corinthian and 1992 champion sprinter Rubiano. Fate then dictated that the list of ideas they helped formulate with the family patriarch was put in his son's hands to execute.

"The horses weren't doing that well at the time and we just wanted to talk about how we needed to do things different," Peter Horvitz said. "We actually came away with a list of things to do and then we were going together, what we wanted to do to get things going again ... and he (Little Sr.) died the next day.

"In August, the right structure came about. We needed to get a line of credit, so Peggy and I and Judy put the funds up to support the line of credit. We needed to buy horses. We basically bought one in the Saratoga sale and one at the Keeneland sale, put this together in less than a month."

Wicked Strong's trainer, Jimmy Jerkens, can relate to both the strain of living up to a father's high standard and enduring in the face of professional strife.

Jerkens, the son of the still-active Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens, counts Centennial as one the major clients that stuck with him when his business hit its own downturn a few years ago. When a beautifully built son of Hard Spun that Centennial bought for $375,000 at the 2012 Keeneland September Yearling Sale arrived in his care, the rebirth was unknowingly already underway for all parties involved.

After hitting the board in all three of his starts as a juvenile, including breaking his maiden at Belmont, Wicked Strong struggled over the Gulfstream Park surface during the late winter, most notably during a ninth-place finish in the Grade II Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 25.

Upon his return to New York, a different horse showed up and ended up kicking home for a 3 1/2-length win in the Grade I Wood Memorial. Wicked Strong went to post in the Kentucky Derby as the second choice in the betting off that effort, and made another big rally in that 1 \-mile classic to finish fourth.

"After winning the Breeders' Cup and the Belmont and having Rubiano, I have to say being second choice going into the Kentucky Derby, that was huge," said Little, who added that Centennial has about 15 horses currently. "And the phone hasn't stopped ringing. It's amazing. Have we gotten a new big partner yet? Not really. But we're having a few new ones."

Little says Wicked Strong's form is as right as it has ever been heading into Saturday's Belmont Stakes. He could say the same about himself and his ownership group.

(c)2014 Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

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