Vekoma was an elite Thoroughbred racehorse as a 2- and 3-year-old, capable of winning a graded stakes in each campaign and earning his way into the 2019 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. In 2020, however, the Candy Ride colt has emerged as an Eclipse Award-caliber athlete.
By no means am I crowning any racehorse a champion in early July, but winning the Grade 1 Runhappy Carter Handicap and Grade 1 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap in back-to-back starts stamps R. A. Hill Stable and Gatsas Stables’ Vekoma one of the best older males in training. He is a major player on the road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships Nov. 6-7 at Keeneland.
Unbeaten in two races as a 2-year-old, including a clear win in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes, Vekoma ran third in the Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes and then won the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes by 3 ½ lengths to punch his Kentucky Derby ticket.
Vekoma has an unusual running style with a pronounced paddle in his right front leg that is almost impossible not to notice, and before the Derby there were some concerns that the inefficiency of motion could be an issue when stretching out to 1 ¼ miles.
The 2019 Kentucky Derby wound up developing into one of the most debated and confusing races in the sport’s history and somehow the least gratifying but unforgettable classic race that I can recall as Maximum Security was disqualified after a 22-minute stewards’ inquiry for initiating a chain reaction of interference entering the stretch on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs.
Lost in the slop that day was Vekoma, who faded late to finish 13th but was elevated to 12th in a largely forgettable performance that trainer George Weaver attributed to the distance and a “gluey” main track.
Vekoma did not race again for more than 10 ½ months, but when he returned the focus shifted to one-turn races and the results have been exceptional in three starts as a 4-year-old.
The Candy Ride colt dominated nine opponents in winning the Sir Shackleton Stakes at Gulfstream Park by 3 ¾ lengths as the 8-5 favorite in late March before pressing the pace and pulling away to a 7 ¼-length romp in the Grade 1 Runhappy Carter Handicap on a sloppy track June 6 at Belmont Park.
Speed figures indicate that Vekoma has improved at 4 while cutting back in distance. He posted a 109 Equibase Speed Figure for the Sir Shackleton and a career-best 116 for the Carter. He also posted a new career-top Beyer Speed Figure (110), BrisNet speed rating (113), and TimeForm US speed rating (125) for the Carter, all of which add up to a serious older male racehorse.
He employed different tactics by taking control right from the start under Javier Castellano. Approaching the stretch, Vekoma appeared to be headed very briefly by Warrior’s Charge, however he dug in gamely and reasserted himself to win by 1 ¼ lengths as the 1.95-1 second betting choice, completing the mile in 1:32.86 and missing the track record of 1:32.24 by a little more than three-fifths of a second.
“As the race unfolded it looked like a lot of horses were trying to make a run and come at us,” Weaver said. “At the quarter pole, for a brief moment, I didn’t know if he had any horse in the tank or not, but at the eighth pole I saw him re-break and I was so proud of him.”
Vekoma recorded a career-top 118 Equibase Speed Figure for the Met Mile win as well as a 104 Beyer, 103 BrisNet rating, and a 124 TimeForm US rating. While he might have run the faster race in the Carter, Vekoma showed incredible tenacity at the top of the Belmont Park stretch in the Met Mile.
Vekoma earned a guaranteed starting spot in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint for the Carter win and an expenses-paid berth in the Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile for the Met Mile win via the Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series.
The Grade 1, $300,000 Forego presented by America's Best Racing on Aug. 29 at Saratoga Race Course could be up next for Vekoma, but Weaver also reportedly is considering training him up to the Breeders’ Cup.
Vekoma has a lot going for him regardless of which race he targets on the Breeders’ Cup card. He is versatile enough to win leading from start to finish or rally from off the pace and has won Grade 1 races on sloppy and fast tracks.
Stamina will not be a question as he’s won at 1 1/8 miles on the Keeneland main track that will host this year’s World Championships, and he proved plenty fast to win either Breeders’ Cup race, although six furlongs in the Sprint might be a little shorter than ideal.
“It seems like he’d be kind of good at both,” Weaver said. “With his ability to stretch his speed, at this point I would say the Breeders’ Cup [Dirt] Mile would probably be the more likely target based on what I’ve seen so far.”
Vekoma is from the 11th crop of record-setting 2003 Pacific Classic Stakes winner Candy Ride and he is one of his sire’s 98 stakes winner through July 6. Other notable stars by Candy Ride include 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, champions Shared Belief and Game Winner, and Grade 1 winners Misremembered, Twirling Candy, Sidney’s Candy, and Separationofpowers to name just a few. Candy Ride’s offspring typically have a high cruising speed and the ability to carry it a distance of ground.
Grade 1 winner Mona de Momma, by champion sprinter Speightstown, is the dam (mother) of Vekoma and comes from a family that has produced 2007 Kentucky Derby winner and champion Street Sense, multiple graded stakes winner and sire Mr. Greeley, and multiple Grade 1 winner Paradise Woods.