A wicked good horse named in honor of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings will be cheered on at the Kentucky Derby by a small UBS AG wealth-management group and a family that’s overcome heartache.
Renamed weeks after the 2013 attack that killed three people and injured 264 more, Wicked Strong will run in the 1 1/4-mile (2-kilometer) Derby today at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the 9-1 second favorite to win the 140th Derby, behind California Chrome at 5-2 for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Wicked Strong is the first Derby horse for owner Centennial Farms, the Beverly, Massachusetts-based thoroughbred syndicate founded in 1982 by Donald Little, a former senior vice president of UBS’s Little McLeod Valentine Wealth Management Group. Little died in February 2012 at the age of 77 while competing in an equestrian competition.
“The naming of this horse, the events around how he was named and the events of Centennial over the last two years, it’s been bit of a tough grind,” said Little’s son, Donald Jr.
Just under two years after Little died from injuries while competing at the 2012 Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida, his daughter, Andrea, who was also an avid rider, succumbed to breast cancer. Centennial was reorganized after Little died, and the three-horse group that was owned by the farm’s next partnership included Wicked Strong.
The 28-person partnership bought the colt, then called Moyne Spun, for $375,000 at the Keeneland Yearling Sales. Moyne Spun’s sire was 2007 Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun.
Farm President Donald Jr., 53, said he was already thinking about changing the horse’s name before the Boston bombings. As soon as the “Boston Strong” slogan took hold he tried to register it, but it was taken.
Two weeks after the bombings, Donald Jr.’s wife was at a Boston Bruins game with friends Kim and Charlie Jacobs, the hockey team’s owners. Kim suggested that “Wicked Strong” would have been more Bostonian. Centennial registered the name soon after.
Wicked used as a modifier, pronounced “wikkit,” according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, means “very” in parts of New England.
Centennial will give 1 percent of Wicked Strong’s winnings to the One Fund, which benefits bombing victims, and 5 percent for Triple Crown races. The winner’s take for the Derby is at least $1.4 million. So far more than $7,000 has been donated.
“I know there’s a little bit extra on this horse’s side,” Donald Jr. said in a telephone interview. “Unfortunately, it takes tragedy to bring people together.”
Little worked at the same desk for 48 years before his death. He was with the wealth-management group when it was Kidder, Peabody & Co., when it was later sold to General Electric Co., then to Paine Webber Inc., and then to UBS.
He was also an avid pilot, as well as the Master of the Hounds at the Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and a show jumper who in his mid-70s still competed against people in their 30s, said Stuart McLeod, senior vice president of five-person Little McLeod Valentine, which he said manages $700 million for mostly individual investors.
“When people say life was to be lived, there was no individual I’ve met in my whole life that epitomized that statement more than him,” McLeod said in a phone interview.
Some Little McLeod Valentine clients are investors in Wicked Strong and many are involved in the thoroughbred world, said McLeod, who is not one of the horse’s owners.
“I’m not a big gambler,” he said. “This could turn me.”
Centennial partnerships generally last three to four years with an initial outlay of $1.5 million to $2 million. About 25 percent of partnerships have made money, said Donald Jr., who worked at Kidder, Peabody for two summers before focusing on Centennial in 1987.
The farm’s last big success was Corinthian, who cost $385,000. He won $1.2 million before being sold for $10 million.
“This is a lifestyle investment,” said Donald Jr. “The most appealing point to this is people that you meet, the networking tool that this business has. Not only do we have Wall Street people, we have heads of major corporations and individuals who have been very successful in venture capital.”
Donald Jr.’s focus this weekend will be caring for more than 70 people rooting for Wicked Strong at Churchill Downs.
Wicked Strong will start from the outside post position, a disadvantage that may be erased by his ability to break late after faster horses have worn out, said Mike Battaglia, an NBC Sports handicapper.
“The outside post could be a little dicey for him, but I like that there’s a lot of speed in here,” Battaglia, who also is Churchill Downs’ handicapper, said on a conference call with reporters. “I do think he’ll be closing.”
The events of the past two years have given Donald Jr. a belief that a certain destiny may be about to be fulfilled.
“You have to have the perfect trip, you have to have a little fate and luck on your side,” he said. “I truly believe in fate and how things come to head.”