Centennial Farms' Wicked Strong uncorked a terrific late kick in Saturday's $1 million TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial, blowing past favorites Social Inclusion and Samraat to win by a widening 3 1/2 lengths. He stamped his ticket for the Kentucky Derby, earning 100 points for his first stakes victory, and completed 1 1/8 miles in 1:49 1/5 on the fast Aqueduct track.
With Rajiv Maragh up, the Jimmy Jerkens-trained colt rated off the pace along the inside before launching his rally on the far turn.
"It all unfolded well," Maragh said. "I was going to let the horse dictate where he wanted to be. He fell into a nice groove early, and he finished up really strong.
"It seemed like he had a lot left, and coming down the lane I was just thinking 'Let's go to the wire first.' It worked out good."
Wicked Strong showed good form in New York last fall, recording a two-length maiden win at Belmont Park and a fast-closing third in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct, beaten only a half-length. However, the son of Hard Spun was never a serious factor in a pair of unplaced finishes at Gulfstream Park this year. He put those performances behind him in style Saturday, returning $20.40 to win after scoring as the 9-1 fifth choice among 10 rivals.
"I thought he was training well enough in Florida, but he didn't show up in the afternoon for some reason," Jerkens said. "When I saw him laying five lengths off the lead, just galloping, I really felt we had a big shot. He was really comfortable laying relatively close behind a pretty fast pace."
Schivarelli showed speed from post 6 and led the way into the first turn, with Samraat also up close to his outside, but Social Inclusion rushed up three wide for his outermost post to challenge rounding the bend. After an opening quarter-mile in :23 3/5, Social Inclusion advanced to take a short lead on the backstretch.
Social Inclusion passed the half-mile mark in :47 2/5 and extended his advantage to 1 1/2 lengths after six furlongs in 1:11. Wicked Strong was about five lengths back in sixth with three-eighths of a mile remaining.
"Handicapping the race, you would think there was going to be a contested pace," Maragh said. "I really wasn't so much concerned with the fractions; I just wanted my horse to get happy early, to get into a nice rhythm and take it from there."
Wicked Strong came off the inside leaving the far turn, driving four wide into the stretch, and went after the leaders in earnest after turning for home. Social Inclusion was still clinging to the lead after a mile in 1:36 1/5, with Samraat in a full drive trying to catch him, but Wicked Strong had all the momentum down the center of the track. He rolled past to win in a convincing manner.
"To me, he's the Derby favorite right now," Maragh said. "In my book, anyway. He showed that more distance is going to be better for him.
"He's really maturing at the right time now, and there's a lot left in the tank, so I don't think we're at the bottom of him, yet."
Maragh was riding Wicked Strong for the first time since the Remsen.
"He ran awesome in the Remsen, but he was a little green and that might have cost him the race," the jockey said. "Today, he was really more mature, more settled, and it made him have a lot more to finish with, I think."
"Rajiv rode him perfectly," Don Little of Centennial added. "He rode him in the Remsen and did a great job. When we decided to run in this race, we instantly called him. He fits him; he knows him."
Samraat, the 3-1 second choice, got up in the final strides to nip 8-5 favorite Social Inclusion by a nose for second. It was another 1 1/2 lengths back to Schivarelli in fourth.
Uncle Sigh, Noble Moon, Kristo, Effinex, Harpoon and Los Borrachos came next under the wire. Kid Cruz was scratched.
Samraat, who was exiting Grade 3 wins in the Gotham and Withers, sustained his first setback in six career starts.
"It's his best race," Samraat's trainer Richard Violette Jr. said. "It's the first time he's been surrounded and covered up, and he handled it. He came back three times. I thought he was going to be fourth the entire (stretch run) and he kept finding more, finding more. Good horses rally from this and get better.
"Other than win, he got a huge education. As long as he comes out of it all right we'll head to Kentucky. I don't think there's anything he can't do; Jose can put him anywhere he wants - behind horses, on the inside, wherever. I don't think the extra eighth of a mile is going to bother him. We kind of did it the hard way."
Social Inclusion, who captured his first two career starts at Gulfstream this year, tasted defeat for the first time as well.
"It was very good," Social Inclusion's trainer Manny Azpurua said. "Next time he'll win; he'll kill them."
Bred in Kentucky by William F. Lynn, Wicked Strong sold for $375,000 as a 2012 Keeneland September yearling. The bay colt hails from a nice female family with plenty of stamina influences for longer distances.
Out of Moyne Abbey, a daughter of 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic, Wicked Strong's second maternal dam, the stakes-placed With Approval mare Classic Approval, produced multiple Grade 3 hero Gulch Approval as well as stakes winners Approval Rating and Rusty Slipper. Multiple Grade 1 winner and sire Student Council is also part of his immediate female family.
Wicked Strong was originally named Moyne Spun, but he was renamed in honor of the Boston Marathon bombings last year. Centennial is donating a percentage of the horse's earnings to The One Fund, which benefits those affected by the tragic events.
With the $590,000 payday, Wicked Strong has now earned $704,610 from a 6-2-1-1 record.
Jerkens is looking forward to sending the late-running Wicked Strong to Churchill Downs for the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby.
"Looks like a horse where distance shouldn't bother him."