Wicked Strong fans give Churchill Downs a Fenway feel
The last time a horse meant this much for Boston, the jockey was Paul Revere.
Fans of Wicked Strong put their money behind the colt named in honor of the Boston Marathon bombing victims, making him the second choice in the 19-horse field in the 140th Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
The horse finished fourth, and by that time, the New England touches around the track were hard to miss.
Red Sox ball caps dotted the sea of fancy hats in the near-record crowd of 164,906 at Churchill Downs. And many sang along when "Sweet Caroline," a Fenway Park staple, played on the track's public address system.
The Boston ties even stretched to the announcer's booth.
Track announcer Larry Collmus, who used to call races at Suffolk Downs in Boston, is a Red Sox fan and compared Churchill's stature in horse racing to Fenway's status in baseball.
Michael O'Toole, of Boston, made the trip from New England with his girlfriend to root on their hometown's race favorite. O'Toole put down $20 on Wicked Strong to win, a few hours before the race.
"Go big or go home," he said.
O'Toole said the horse's name symbolized Boston's resilience following the tragedy.
"You can try to terrorize our town but we'll come back stronger," he said.
Twin bombs placed near the finish line of the 2013 marathon ripped into crowds and runners, killing three people and injuring more than 260. At least 16 people lost limbs.
Western Kentucky resident Jarrod Ratliff had a friend who ran in the Boston Marathon the past two years. He said he saw the horse's name as a sign of solidarity in support of Boston and the marathon victims.
"I think it's great that they named him that and what it stands for," he said.
Ratliff put down money on the horse, not out of sentimentality but because of his credentials on the track. He said he got tips from friends who pointed him toward the horse, which won the Wood Memorial Stakes last month.
Matt Fermino roamed the Churchill Downs infield the day before the Derby with a group of fellow Bostonians. He said Wicked Strong fever hadn't exactly taken over Boston, but people at home would be pulling for the horse when it breaks from the outside gate.
Wicked Strong is owned by a Boston-based partnership that pledged to donate 5 percent of any money won by the bay colt during the Triple Crown series to the fund set up for the bombing victims.
Wicked Strong began racing with the name Moyne Spun, but Donald Little Jr., who heads the Centennial Farms partnership, didn't like that moniker and renamed the horse with the marathon bombings in mind.
His first thought was Boston Strong, but the name was already taken. So the new name became Wicked Strong -- giving it a linguistic Boston twist.