Making the Grade, which will run through the 2019 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an impact on the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.
Vekoma was highly regarded as a 2-year-old and lived up to his promise in his final Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve prep when he pulled away to a 3 ½-length runaway in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. With only four starts, this lightly raced Candy Ride colt could become a household name in a little more than a week at Churchill Downs.
Ability: A $135,000 purchase at the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale, Vekoma won his debut by 1 ¾ lengths going three-quarters of a mile in September 2018 at Belmont Park. He then capably handled a class test in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes while also stretching out to a mile, pulling away to win by 1 ¾ lengths on Nov. 4 at Aqueduct.
The Nashua victory showed Vekoma could overcome adversity as he bobbled at the start and was forced to race wide throughout the one-turn-mile. He accelerated on cue approaching the stretch and, although it took him several strides to switch leads, he proved much the best in the stretch en route to an eye-catching 110 Equibase Speed Figure.
The early pace was very fast in the Fountain of Youth and Vekoma was seven lengths back early in the race. He made up some ground late in his first try navigating two turns, but could not match strides late with winner Code of Honor or runner-up Bourbon War.
The 107 Equibase Speed Figure and 115 TimeForm US Speed Figure indicated it was a solid return from Vekoma, who surely needed the race and was asked to adapt to racing much farther off the pace than in his previous two races. Vekoma’s Brisnet speed figure, however, was nine points off his career best.
Four-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Javier Castellano picked up the mount on Vekoma for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, and Weaver was looking for Vekoma to prove he could handle stretching out to 1 1/8 miles.
He pressed a moderate pace from second and pulled away to a commanding advantage in early stretch on his way to a 3 ½-length victory.
“I talked to [jockey] Javier [Castellano] before this race, and told him I wasn’t so worried about [early position]. I wanted to know if he can go the distance,” Weaver said. “He’s got great tactical speed … put him in a spot going into the first turn and just ride him natural.”
Vekoma earned a new career-best 119 TimeForm US speed figure and equaled his career-top 101 Brisnet Speed Figure. His Equibase Speed Figure, however, dipped 10 points to a 97 and the Beyer Speed Figure from Daily Racing Form came back a solid-if-unspectacular 94.
One major concern that arose for me was that Vekoma did not finish as strongly as I would have liked. Keeler Johnson’s 2019 Kentucky Derby Data: How Fast the Contenders Finished blog goes into far more detail, but the final three-eighths of a mile in 39.39 seconds and a final eighth in 13.45 seconds are very concerning to me for a horse trying to stretch out another eighths of a mile to 1 ¼ miles for the Kentucky Derby.
Running style: Vekoma stalked or pressed the pace in each of his three wins. When third in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes, he was seven lengths back early while racing in fourth. Weaver mentioned that the colt has terrific tactical speed and I would expect Vekoma and Castellano to use that early in the Kentucky Derby to gain a position just behind the pace and, ideally, in the clear. Of course, he will be one of many runners jockeying for that position as presser/stalker types have won the last five Kentucky Derbys.
It has been mentioned many times in the last few weeks that Vekoma does show an unusual action when running with his left front leg “paddling” as he gallops, but Weaver said he’s never had any physical issues.
“It's just the way he goes. He's always moved like that,” said Weaver. “I guess you would think it's less than ideal action, but he's always been a real sound horse and he covers a lot of ground. That's just the way he runs.”
R. A. Hill Stable is the racing operation of Raymond Hill III, a Franklin Lakes, N.J., native who grew up going to Monmouth Park with his mother. Hill bought his first Thoroughbred 17 years ago.
Gatsas Stable is the racing operation of Mike Gatsas, who founded Staffing Network with his brother Ted in 1988 and 11 years later sold the business to Vincam, which merged with ADP. In 2003, Mike Gatsas founded a human-resource administration company called Trivantus. Mike’s son Matt was the one who named Vekoma after a Dutch roller coaster manufacturer.
R. A. Hill Stables also is a co-owner of Withers Stakes winner and fellow 2019 Derby contender Tax and raced graded stakes winner Devil’s Preacher as well as graded winners Divine Miss Grey and Together Indy in partnership.
Kentucky native George Weaver worked as an assistant to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas and seven-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher before venturing out on his own in 2002. Weaver earned his first Grade 1 win in 2013 when Lighthouse Bay won the Prioress Stakes. Other top horses trained by Weaver include multiple graded stakes winners Isotherm, Daddy Is a Legend, and Saratoga County. Weaver’s lone previous Kentucky Derby starter was Tencendur, who was 17th in 2015.
Jockey Javier Castellano won four straight Eclipse Awards as outstanding jockey from 2013 through 2016 and was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2017. He took out his jockey’s license in 1997 and has amassed more than 5,000 wins, 417 graded stakes victories, and more than $328.4 million in purse earnings through April 23. Castellano has won the Preakness twice (Bernardini, 2006; Cloud Computing, 2017) and finished second in the Belmont Stakes three times. His best Kentucky Derby finish was a third on Audible last year.
Pedigree: Vekoma is from the 11th crop of Candy Ride, a brilliant racehorse and a top sire whose best runners to date include 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner as well as champion 2-year-old males Shared Belief and Game Winner. Other notable graded stakes winners include Clubhouse Ride, Misremembered, Candy Boy, Sidney’s Candy, Leofric, and Twirling Candy. While Candy Ride has sired quality sprinters and turf horses, each of the aforementioned horses showed speed and the ability to carry it around two turns on the main track.
Grade 1-winning sprinter Mona de Momma, by Speightstown, is the dam (mother) of Vekoma. She won five of 13 starts, including two graded stakes, at distances from three-quarters of a mile to seven-eighths of a mile. Her best career win came on a sloppy track in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on the 2010 Kentucky Derby undercard.
Vekoma’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Society Gal, by Linkage, was unplaced in two starts in sprints. Third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Long Legend, by Reviewer, won four of six starts and produced two stakes winners: multiple graded stakes winner and sire Mr. Greeley and Majestic Legend, the grandam of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense.
Weaver expressed some concern about distance with Vekoma and it’s easy to see why in looking closer at the bottom half of this pedigree, but he gets a dose of stamina from Candy Ride and Mona de Momma is a Grade 1 winner from a nice family.
Vekoma will not be my Kentucky Derby pick – I can’t get past how slowly he came home in the Blue Grass – but I do believe he is a very nice and fast 3-year-old with intriguing potential … and he figures to be a solid price on Kentucky Derby day.