Preservationist Leaps to No. 1

In a year like this you have to be prepared for quite a bit of juggling when assessing and ranking this year’s group of Breeders’ Cup Classic hopefuls.

Every horse has positives and negatives and we will just have to see which one outweighs the other on all these horses come Breeders’ Cup week.

To me, Preservationist is the old school (where I graduated from) horse, trained by the old school horseman, who has run the best mile and a quarter race this year (see comments below).

He also has one of the best stories and there are few racing fans who would not feel good about Jimmy Jerkens and Centennial Farms walking off with the big prize.

In 2009, Jerkens, son of legendary trainer Allen Jerkens, had his stable pretty much stripped clean when his main client, Edward (Ned) Evans, took all his horses away, including the brilliant Quality Road, one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby. Another of his longtime clients also removed their horses from Jerkens’ barn, leaving his stable depleted.

But Jerkens bounced back the following year to win the Travers Stakes with Gainesway Farm’s Afleet Express. That gave the stable a huge lift. It was short-lived, however, as three lean years followed, during which he won a single listed stakes in 2011 and did not have a stakes winner in 2012 and 2013. Again, it was the Travers that vaulted the stable back to prominence when Jerkens’ 19-1 shot V.E. Day nosed out his big horse, Wicked Strong, owned by Centennial Farms.

It was Centennial Farms that supported Jerkens from the beginning, winning the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in 2007 with Corinthian. Although Jerkens was thrilled to finish one-two in the Travers--his two horses noses apart--one got the feeling there was a tinge of sadness he could not win it for Centennial Farms and the Little family.

He tried hard to get them that big win after scoring in the Wood Memorial with Wicked Strong, but it was a frustrating run, finishing fourth in the Kentucky Derby, fourth in the Belmont Stakes, second by a nose in the Travers, second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, third in the Woodward Stakes, fourth in the Whitney, fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, fourth in the Gulfstream Park Handicap, and fifth in the Met Mile.

Following his one-two finish in the Travers, Jerkens’ wife and assistant, Shirley, said, “I feel so amazing for Jimmy and for Allen. You can’t even dream up something like this. You don’t feel like this is ever going to happen. Jimmy is such a warrior. He fought hard through the low times. And now it’s a great time. You just have to keep going. That’s what he does.”

Allen, watching the Travers in Florida, said. “I’m really proud of him, but the bottom line is, you have to get the horses.”

Afleet Express and V.E. Day were far from super horses, but, like his father, Jimmy showed he knew how to make good horses and get them to win big races.

Since Wicked Strong, Jimmy has been trying to get that one big horse for Centennial Farms and win that one major race that would make him or her known on a national scale and be in line for an Eclipse Award, possibly even Horse of the Year. It has been 26 years since they won the Belmont Stakes with Colonial Affair and 27 years since they won an Eclipse Award with Rubiano.

Although they have always supported Jerkens, Centennial, run by the late Don Little and then his son, Don. Jr., actually has risen from deeper depths than their trainer.

Founded in 1982, the operation was closed down following the elder Little’s death in Feb. 2012 from injuries sustained when thrown from a horse going over a jump in the Masters Classic International Arena at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla.

It was tough times, as Don Little Jr. tried to find enough financial support to save Centennial Farms. It was Wicked Strong who brought them back into the national spotlight with his Triple Crown run.

“I believe in fate,” said Little, who had battled through his own personal problems, going through rehab. “Nine months (before Wicked Strong’s Belmont Stakes) I didn’t know what I was going to do, to be honest. I knew what I wanted to do. But there were certain constraints and limits of what I could do. I didn’t want to continue without the proper financial support and the people behind it.”

In stepped longtime Centennial partner Peter Horvitz and his wife Peggy, who became co-owners. Both had been believers in Don Little’s vision.

“Don was a larger than life character,” Peter said in 2014. “He was so enthusiastic and loved it so much and that rubbed off on all of us. He is still such a large part of Centennial.”

Don Jr. added, “Nine months ago we all had a vision of building it back up. We had been talking about it and the many ways to do it. We sat down and the right structure just came together. My mother wanted to see where I was going to be a year later and how I was going to handle it. It wasn’t until last year (2013) that we felt we would be able to move forward. We met in early August (of that year) and needed to get horses quickly. We bought one yearling at the Saratoga sale and then we needed to buy horses at the Keeneland sale. So we put all this together in less than a month. I had people lined up, but it had to be done the right way.”

A big help were racing manager Dr. Steve Carr and Paula Parsons, who broke and trained the young horses.

Horvitz recalled the day he and Peggy had breakfast with Don Little Sr. in Florida. “Things weren’t going that well at the time and the horses weren’t running well,” he said. “We talked about what we wanted to do to get Centennial going again. The next day he died in a riding accident. Don Jr. had just gotten out of rehab in December and we wanted to rethink the company.  Centennial had lost 80% of its business in two years through the death of Don Sr. and another major partner, Jud Stryker.”

A month after Don Sr. died, Don Jr. was home alone on a Saturday on a tractor cutting up fields when he got a phone message from someone from Maryland who said he was interested in being a partner in Centennial and asked what was available. Don was struggling to get the partnership finished. Before they had restructured, they had no line of credit. Don and the potential investor talked for a while and he called back the next day and said he would take the rest of it. Centennial was back in business. Before they knew it, here came Wicked Strong.

And now they have Preservationist, who with his stunning victory in the Suburban Handicap in a sharp 1:59 4/5 and gutsy score in the Woodward is now one of the leading contenders for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

If any owner-trainer team deserves to win the Classic it is Jerkens and Centennial Farms.

“I have always believed in Jimmy,” Don Jr. said several years ago. “I said we’ll be making a foolish mistake if we do anything with the trainer situation. You’re not going to find a better horseman. After what I went through, I had to build trust back up with the partners. One thing I learned is not to hide it. Be open about it and discuss it. Transparency is always a good thing.”

Horvitz added at the time, “I give Don Jr. a tremendous amount of credit. For all he’s been through the last two years to end up where we are now is remarkable. I remember when Corinthian won the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Don Sr. was alive then and it was one of the greatest days for Centennial. At the Wood it was the same feeling. We missed Don being there, but he would have been so happy and so proud. Don Jr. has learned a lot through this experience. And we couldn’t be happier for Jimmy. He’s been through a lot and has worked so hard for this. Nobody is more deserving.”

Don Jr. has always been open about his problem and takes great pride in what he has accomplished to rid himself of his demons. “It’s a great feeling, it really is,” he said. “I can’t explain it. It’s kind of nice to give yourself a pat on the back every now and then. It was truly a humbling experience, all of it.”

To continue the comeback stories of Jimmy Jerkens, Don Little Jr., and Centennial Farms, last summer, Jerkens suffered a heart attack and had to have stents inserted into two blocked arteries.

Now here he is headed for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, if Preservationist’s connections wish to pursue that path, with a horse who, like his connections, has made his share of comebacks.

In 2014, while Wicked Strong was still trying to land that big one to follow up on his Wood Memorial victory, Centennial was purchasing a yearling colt by Arch, out of the Dixieland Band mare Flying Dixie for $485,000 at the Keeneland September sale.

Named Preservationist, nagging injuries prevented him from making his first start until June of his 3-year-old campaign, in which he finished second. He would not race again for 18 months. After making three starts (two wins and a third), he was sidelined for 11 months.

He returned in January 2019 to finish third and first in allowance company. After being out for 3 1/2 months he emerged a new horse, crushing the favorite Catholic Boy by 4 1/2 lengths in the Suburban Handicap in his first ever stakes race as a 6-year-old. A poor ride in the Whitney, compounded by his getting washed out before the race, resulted in a fourth-place finish.

But he bounced back in the Woodward, and this time, under an excellent ride by Junior Alvarado, he waited patiently along the rail, was blocked by a wall of horses turning for home, had his main escape route close up on him, and finally moved out and bulled his way through a narrow opening, outgaming Bal Harbour and Yoshida to win by a half-length in a swift 1:48 flat.

So, by running the third fastest Suburban in the last 25 years it was run at 1 1/4 miles and the third fastest Woodward since the race was moved to Saratoga in 2006, Preservationist looks like the most solid Classic contender, especially going 1 1/4 miles. And despite being 6, he has run only 10 times and is just now turning into a top-quality stakes horse.

We’ll see if his connections run him back in four weeks in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and if they are considering sending him cross-country for the Breeders’ Cup Classic or wait for the rich Pegasus World Cup.

Whatever they decide, it’s great to see Preservationist’s career taking off at this age. It couldn’t happen to more deserving people.


1—Preservationist Jimmy Jerkens A natural mile and a quarter horse, he has turned in the fastest and classiest 10-furlong race of the year. And he’s still developing into a top-class horse at age 6.
2—McKinzie Bob Baffert The logical top-ranked horse based on raw talent and the Breeders’ Cup being held at his home track. The only question is whether he is at his best at 1 1/4 miles.
3—Code of Honor Shug McGaughey Impressive Travers victory and vast improvement over the past few months make him the most formidable 3-year-old at this point. But will he run? Remember owner’s big horse Mineshaft? JC Gold Cup and Pegasus could be an option.
4—Yoshida Bill Mott He seems to be more effective at 1 1/4 miles after coming up a bit short in the Whitney and Woodward. Came from 12th to be beaten 1 3/4 lengths in last year’s Classic. Needs a perfectly timed ride.
5—Thunder Snow Saeed bin Suroor Would be higher if he hadn’t scratched out of the Whitney with a cough and fever. He didn’t stick around for the Woodward and hasn’t worked so obviously he has returned home. As good as any of them, he is the consummate globe trotter.
6—Higher Power John Sadler Turned in a pair of solid half-mile works since his stunning Pacific Classic win. Will likely get more respect in California than he has nationwide. Could be a major force, but will be facing much tougher competition.
7—Catholic Boy Jonathan Thomas Needs to get back in action to show where he’s at. The fact he is pointing for the one-mile Kelso indicates they are not sure yet if he is Classic or Dirt Mile bound. It would seem he is more suited to the Classic; he just needs to show signs he can duplicate his Travers score.
8—Vino Rosso Todd Pletcher Another who is being overlooked, but like Preservationist is probably better suited to a mile and a quarter. Jockey Club Gold Cup will tell how serious a contender he is.
9—Maximum Security Jason Servis Should have his hands full in the Pennsylvania Derby. With his style of running he will have to withstand some serious pace pressure in the Classic, and the question is will he be up to it going a mile and a quarter.
10—Tacitus Bill Mott I still have faith in this colt’s talent and his ability to win any race on any given day with all the pieces coming together. Coming off four races, including three second-place finishes, in which he was not given the chance to run his best race. One day this sleeping giant will get the perfect trip, and when he does….
11—Seeking the Soul Dallas Stewart Throwing out the Pacific Classic debacle. It was Del Mar and he has proven his class many times. I like the fact that he bounced out of that race with a sharp six-furlong work in 1:12 2/5 at Churchill Downs. Santa Anita still not preferable, but looking for big improvement.
12—Draft Pick Peter Eurton Never been worse than fourth in 12 career starts, and Stretched out from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/4 miles to run solid second in the Pacific Classic. Certainly bred for Stamina, so he should only improve off that effort.
13—Mr. Money Bret Calhoun We really have no idea how good this horse is right now, coming off a four-race winning streak, all grade 3 stakes, and winning those races by an average margin of five lengths. Moves up in class in Pennsylvania Derby and that will determine just where he stands.
14—Spinoff Todd Pletcher This is my sleeper in the Pennsylvania Derby. His last race, an allowance test vs. older horses with blinkers added, was a real eye opener. I have always had him highly ranked. Only times he’s been out of the money have been on grass, slop, and 1 1/2 miles, and even though not a 12-furlong horse, was beaten only three lengths. Big upset chance at Parx.
15—Gift Box John Sadler It’s been three months since the Stephen Foster and still no works. Last report was he is pointing for the Awesome Again, but will give it one more week before removing him from the contenders.

Other horses who should be mentioned are Woodward runner-up Bal Harbour, a hard-knocking, consistent horse who looks to be effective at distances up to 1 1/8 miles. Not so sure, with his pedigree, he can get that extra eighth in top company; War of Will, who has had an up and down campaign, but is capable of big things on his best day, as he showed in the Preakness, his run of victories at Fair Grounds, and even in his performance in the Kentucky Derby; Mongolian Groom, who didn’t run badly in the Woodward at 28-1, beaten 4 1/4 lengths, and should appreciate returning back to California; Game Winner, who is still behind, not doing much, and has a lot of catching up to do; Omaha Beach, who missed the Shared Belief Stakes, and the big question is whether he can return his old self in the Ack Ack Stakes and be ready for the Classic off one mile race in seven months; asking a lot; Tax, who is bred for 1 1/4 miles, but needs to rebound after tiring in the Travers; Endorsed, not likely for the Classic, but a horse to definitely watch in the future. Still have an APB out for Gunnevera, who hasnt run since the Dubai World Cup and hasnt worked since late July.

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