Running for charity at Kentucky Derby - NBC Sports

Running for charity at Kentucky Derby
April 29, 2014, 6:45 pm

Three races comprise the Triple Crown. It’s the pinnacle of horse racing, a pursuit that hasn't been achieved in 36 years.

Three horses, representing three different ownership groups and yet all running for a common cause – charity.

On Saturday, those two entities collide when the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby kicks off the 2014 Triple Crown.

The three horses in question – Wicked Strong, Vinceremos and Uncle Sigh – will not only be competing for Derby glory, but for various aid organizations chosen by their owners.

Wicked Strong may be the most recognizable of the three Derby hopefuls. The colt will have an entire city – probably an entire region as well as a good section of the country – cheering him on when he heads to the post on Saturday.

Campaigned by Centennial Farms, which is based in Beverly, Massachusetts, the bay son of Hard Spun out of Moyne Abbey was originally called Moyne Spun until his owners selected a different name for their striking colt.

The motivation came April 15, 2013 when the tragic events occurred at the 117th running of the Boston Marathon.

Don Little Jr. of Centennial Farms wanted to honor the victims and heroes of the bombing and couldn't think of a more appropriate name for their Hard Spun colt than Boston Strong.

Unfortunately, that name had already been claimed from the Jockey Club.

Then Little's wife, Kim, was inspired while attending a Bruins game and phoned her husband with a new moniker – Wicked Strong.

In New England slang, "wicked" is often used to add emphasis to what follows.

The name stuck and Wicked Strong has been paying tribute to the Boston Marathon victims ever since.

Little contacted those involved in the partnership group that owns Wicked Strong and suggested a percentage of the colt's earnings be donated to the One Fund, set up by Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino to help those most affected by the bombings.

Not one member said no.

So far, 1 percent of Wicked Strong's earnings, including his win in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 5, has gone to support the One Fund.

On Saturday, and for the remainder of the Triple Crown races – comprised of the Preakness in Baltimore, Maryland, and Belmont Stakes in New York – that number jumps to 5 percent.

Thanks to his owners, Wicked Strong has helped support the Boston Marathon victims and, no matter where he finishes Saturday, he will be supported by those same 'wicked strong' people.

Vinceremos will have a cheering section of his own in the Kentucky Derby, and the loudest voice of all may be from a four-year-old little girl.

Campaigned by WinStar Farm and Twin Creeks Racing, the dark bay colt is named after the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center in Florida.

The colt's name came about thanks to Elliot Walden, a former leading trainer at both Churchill Downs and Keeneland who now has the title of WinStar president and CEO.

Or more specifically, thanks to his wife, Rebecca.

Walden's son Mac volunteers at the non-profit, which helps both children and adults with developmental, physical and psychological disabilities by using specially trained horses.

Walden's wife came up with the idea of naming a horse after the charity.

"We're always looking for good names, those that have meaning and a story to tell," Walden explained. "We also liked the fact that in Latin (Vinceremos) means to 'conquer.'"

The colt has already provided one of the riding school's youngest members a thrill.

Adison Tompkins was honored as the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center's "Rider of the Year" in 2013. Tompkins was born with a genetic syndrome that slowed her ability to walk.

After two years in the program, the four-year-old from Palm Beach, Florida, was able to walk into the stable area at Palm Meadows in Boynton Beach, Florida. There, she met up with trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Javier Castellano, who took her meet Vinceremos the colt in early April.

"When we learned about Adison and her wonderful story with the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center, we had to get her out to the stables to meet out Vinceremos," Walden stated.

"It was incredible to see Vinceremos, who can be fiery and excitable, drop his head into Addy's face. He knew it was a child." 

Thanks to the generosity of Vinceremos' owners, both WinStar and Twin Creeks, a portion of the colt's Triple Crown earnings will go to his namesake non-profit to help others like Tompkins.

Uncle Sigh is not as accomplished as graded stakes winners Wicked Strong and Vinceremos, but the bay colt's owner more than makes up for that.

The Indian Charlie colt is campaigned by Wounded Warrior Stables, which used to go by McEwen Stables for owner George "Chip" McEwen III.

McEwen, who runs a pharmaceutical distribution business in South Carolina, makes his home in Florida. Upon stopping in Charlotte on flight back from Las Vegas, McEwen had an epiphany.

"An announcement was made asking for everyone to stay on the plane to let a wounded war veteran off," McEwen recounted.

"Here comes this kid, about 27, 28 years old. His dad's holding him up from behind with his arms underneath his chest. He had both legs and arms, but he'd been hit in the head by an IED. His wife had a year-old baby in her arms and their four-year-old daughter was walking with her. His mother was walking behind him, and he's giving everybody a thumb's up, smiling."

In that moment McEwen knew he needed to do more for wounded veterans. He first contacted the Wounded Warrior Project, but they were reluctant to get involved because of horse racing's gambling aspect.

So McEwen changed his stable name to Wounded Warrior Stables and allocated 10 percent of earnings, both of purse money and from the sale of horses, to the Wounded Warrior Project.

But McEwen didn't stop there.

The stable, which sports the purple heart, also donates to Task Force Dagger Foundation, which helps people in the United States Army special operation units; Retrieving Freedom, an organization that places service dogs with veterans, children with autism, and adults and children with diabetes; the Navy SEAL Foundation, providing immediate and ongoing support and assistance to the Naval Special Warfare community and its families; various charities in Southwest Florida; and the children's hospital in Southwest Florida.

McEwen plans on bringing a wounded war veteran, who lost both legs to an IED, to Churchill on Saturday, giving him the opportunity to experience the thrill of the Derby.

"I was elated, very excited," McEwen said when he realized Uncle Sigh would make the Derby field.

Uncle Sigh, Vinceremos and Wicked Strong all bring something extra to the equation on Saturday.

And in the end, no matter where they finish in the Derby, people everywhere will be winners thanks to these three special colts and their owners.

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