Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve on Saturday, May 4, at Churchill Downs.
In the latest installment, he speaks to trainer George Weaver. The Louisville native will send out his second Kentucky Derby starter in promising Vekoma, a commanding 3 ½-length winner of the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 6. The son of Candy Ride previously finished third in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 2 at Gulfstream Park in his other Derby prep.
Vekoma was purchased for $135,000 at the 2017 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. He is owned by R. A. Hill Stable and Gatsas Stables.
PEDULLA: How is Vekoma doing?
WEAVER: He is doing well. I’m happy with him.
PEDULLA: What did you think of his victory in the Blue Grass?
WEAVER: He was well meant. I was happy with him going into the race. I thought the horse delivered. He won that race pretty decisively and earned himself a trip to the next dance.
WEAVER: I am very proud to come from that school. They were very organized and very methodical about what they did. We had a number of very good horses and that’s when you learn the most. It gives you a chance to learn what good horses look like and how to train them. But the biggest thing from both Wayne’s organization and Todd’s is the organization. There is a large attention to detail. Nothing is missed. You learn how to manage a large group of horses and everything is done the right way.
PEDULLA: Is the Derby’s mile-and-a-quarter distance a great unknown for most horses?
WEAVER: I think it kind of is. There are some horses in there that more clearly have the pedigree and should get the distance. There are other ones you have question marks about. I didn’t know how he was going to handle the mile and an eighth (of the Blue Grass) and he handled it fine. That is the question he’s going to be asked and answer to when they hit the top of the stretch in the Derby.
PEDULLA: Is his stalking style beneficial?
WEAVER: It’s nice to have tactical speed. Tactical positioning speed is always an asset. I don’t feel too uncomfortable about getting the right trip. It’s just a matter of whether he’s good enough.
PEDULLA: Do you anticipate a solid pace?
WEAVER: I really don’t know. I can’t tell you how many times I looked at a race and thought there would be a fast pace and it was slow or vice versa. If the pace is fast, hopefully we won’t be disputing it. If the pace is a little slower, hopefully we’ll be right there and in a good rhythm.
PEDULLA: How much of an asset is it to have Javier Castellano riding?
WEAVER: We won the Blue Grass with him and he was our first choice to ride the horse back. Manny (Franco) rode him his first three starts and certainly Manny helped us get to where we are. It was unfortunate that it didn’t work out that we could have Manny ride him back in the Blue Grass. But how could you not be happy with Castellano? He’s one of the great jockeys there is.
PEDULLA: Is it a disadvantage that Vekoma is a May 22 foal?
WEAVER: Sure it is. Technically, he’s not even going to be a 3-year-old when they run the race. I take all of those things on a horse by horse basis. He’s precocious and I think he can handle it. I’m not going to let that bother me too much.
PEDULLA: He has a bit of an odd stride. Has he always had that?
WEAVER: Yeah, he’s got a little funny way of going. He always has. That’s another thing we’re not really concerned about. He’s got a lot of talent and that’s just the way he runs.
PEDULLA: After the Blue Grass, you decided to leave Kentucky and return him to Palm Beach Downs in Florida. What went into that decision?
WEAVER: I looked at history and history told me you don’t need to breeze over that (Churchill Downs) track to win that race. Quite frankly, many times the track is different on Derby day than it is the two weeks leading up to it.
PEDULLA: When do you plan to give Vekoma his final work?
WEAVER: He breezes Friday at Palm Beach Downs and ships to Churchill Downs next Tuesday.
PEDULLA: As a Louisville native, what does it mean to reach the Derby with what looks to be a contender?
WEAVER: Just getting to the Derby is very special. I am a Louisville native and certainly it was ingrained in me at a young age what a big deal it is. The whole town comes alive. It’s like the Super Bowl of racing. If you asked 99 percent of the people the race they’d like to win, it would be the Kentucky Derby.