It's nearly impossible to refrain from thinking about the future when a 4-year-old like Vekoma turns in a classy and courageous effort and wins a race as prestigious as the Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap.
Yet 49-year-old winning trainer George Weaver was more than content to savor the moment and appreciate how Vekoma provided him with the most important victory in a career that started in 2003.
"I've seen all I need to see. He's my man," Weaver said. "(Vekoma) can run up the track for the rest of his life and I wouldn't care. I would say (to him), 'When you were good, you were as good as they get.'"
Vekoma was good, actually extremely good July 4 at Belmont Park, as he took the lead from the start in the 127th Met Mile while being chased by a field of seven rivals that included Grade 1 winners Code of Honor and McKinzie.
For a moment at the top of the stretch, it appeared as if he was about to fold as the field closed in on him, but all he was doing was taking a breather. As the final furlong approached, Vekoma found another gear and maintained his lead, reaching the wire with a clear 1 ¼-length margin in the $500,000 Met Mile over Network Effect with Runhappy Travers Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Code of Honor third.
"Ever since I first started working here in 1991 I would watch this race every year from the stand near the finish line. In 1996, I saddled Honour and Glory for Wayne Lukas (as his assistant trainer) when he won the Met Mile. It's a huge thrill for me to win this race," Weaver said. "There are some marquee races on the calendar in New York and this is at the top of the list."
For Randy Hill, who owns the son of Candy Ride with Gatsas Stables, it was also a moment to cherish. Hill has owned horses for about 20 years and came into 2020 with just a single Grade 1 win. In just four weeks, Vekoma has now given him two, adding the Met Mile to a June 6 victory in the Runhappy Carter Handicap by 7 ¼ lengths.
"It's the biggest win of my life," said Hill from his New Jersey home. "To get two Grade 1s this year, after winning just one in 20 years, these are the things you dream about when you get in the game. It's like winning the lottery."
The win also left Hill with no doubt over who should be atop the next National Thoroughbred Racing Association Top 10 poll.
"What a horse. Without a doubt he's the best horse in America right now. There's nobody better than this horse," he said about Vekoma, who was eighth in this week's poll.
Off his back-to-back Grade 1 wins, Vekoma surely has compiled an impressive résumé. If anything, the Carter was so impressive, it raised the specter of a bounce in the Met Mile, but Weaver did not let that deter him from running in what figures to be one of the toughest races of the year.
"I certainly thought about the bounce," he said, "and coming back quickly. But I fell back on him breezing well for this race and I thought we had a chance to win. It's hard to keep a horse at the top of their game, and if I passed on the Met Mile there's no guarantee he would be this sharp again. I think it's important to let your horse do the talking for you and go ahead and run."
Vekoma first put his talent on display at 2, winning the Nashua Stakes in his second career start. He captured the Toyota Blue Grass last year, but then was sidelined after finishing 12th in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. He won the March 28 Sir Shackleton Stakes at Gulfstream Park in his return to kick off a 2020 campaign in which he is now 3-for-3.
"He was always this good," Weaver said. "The only blip on his résumé is the Derby and that wasn't his day. Plus the mile and-a-quarter is probably a tad too long for him. The track was really gluey and he didn't show up. Other than that, he's been a freak."
The freakish part of the Met Mile came in the stretch. Vekoma, the 1.95-1 second betting choice under Javier Castellano, held a length lead over Warrior's Charge after a half-mile in :45.87. Turning for home, rivals fanned five-wide in hopes of collaring him. As McKinzie, the Bob Baffert-trained 1.85-to-1 favorite and 125-pound highweight, lacked a strong late kick and ended up fifth, it was Will Farish's Code of Honor who charged five-wide and Klaravich Stables' Network Effect who came off the rail to take aim at the leader, only to have Vekoma become resurgent and cross the finish line in 1:32.88 for the one-turn mile.
"When they turned for home, I thought they were going to swallow him up," Hill said. "But he said, 'Screw you. No way. I have another gear for you.'"
The win was the sixth in eight career starts for Vekoma. He has now earned $1,245,525.
Down the road, Weaver mentioned the Aug. 1 Whitney Stakes at nine furlongs as well as the more likely seven-furlong Aug. 29 Forego Stakes, both at Saratoga, as possible next starts for Vekoma. Beyond that, the Met Mile was a "Win and You're In" race for the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, and both Hill and Weaver indicated that was probably the best fit for Vekoma at the World Championships.
For Network Effect, a 4-year-old son of Mark Valeski, it marked the second time in a row he completed the exacta behind Vekoma, having finished a more distant second in the Carter.
"I'm so proud of my horse. He's developing nicely and getting bigger. He's never looked better," trainer Chad Brown said. "He's identified himself as a one-turn horse."
Code of Honor was a neck behind Network Effect after rallying widest.
"I thought maybe we had (Vekoma)," trainer Shug McGaughey said about the homebred son of Noble Mission. "It's hard when a horse gets a trip and you have to go so wide."