Vekoma, a high-class runner at 2 at 3, is now a Grade 1 winner as a 4-year-old.
The son of Candy Ride who won the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes as a juvenile and the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes as a sophomore picked up the first Grade 1 of his career June 6 with an easy score in the $250,000 Runhappy Carter Handicap at Belmont Park, the first Grade 1 sprint of 2020 in North America.
Breaking alertly under Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano, favored Vekoma settled just off the early pace of American Anthem, who set quarter-mile fractions of :22.38 and :45.02 in the slop. Given his cue on the turn, Vekoma took charge entering the lane and left his foes behind in the stretch, winning the seven-furlong race by 7 1/4 lengths over Network Effect.
“The way he handled the track today was amazing,” Castellano said. “I didn’t have any concern before the race because I rode him in the slop in the Kentucky Derby and he loved it, a mile and a quarter was just too far. He cut back in distance and we got what we were looking for today.”
Vekoma was 12th in the 2019 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs, his final start at 3 before he returned this year with a victory in the Sir Shackleton Stakes at Gulfstream Park March 28.
The 1-2 finish from Vekoma and Network Effect replicated an earlier finish between the two colts in their only prior meeting in the Nashua at Aqueduct in November 2018. In that meeting as juveniles, Vekoma won by 1 3/4 lengths.
American Anthem settled for the show, 1 1/4 lengths behind the runner-up but well clear of fourth-place Firenze Fire.
Majestic Dunhill, Midnightcharly, and Performer were scratched from the Carter, which reduced the field to eight, all of whom were stakes winners, five in graded races.
Dual grade 1 winner Mind Control disappointed with a sixth-place finish. Winner of the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes and H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, he was unplaced for the second time in as many starts at Belmont. He also was eighth in the Grade 1 Woody Stephens Stakes last year after stumbling at the start and running into stretch traffic.
He carried high weight of 124 pounds, spotting his foes between 2-8 pounds.
Vekoma, owned by R. A. Hill Stable and Gatsas Stables and trained by George Weaver, finished in 1:21.02, capped by a final eighth of a mile in :12.19. He did so under confident handling from Castellano, who largely hand-rode him while occasionally flashing his whip at his mount down the stretch. He paid $5.30 for a $2 win bet.
As a Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” event, the Carter victory now gives Vekoma a paid automatic berth into the Nov. 7 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland.
A more immediate prize could be on deck — the $500,000 Runhappy Metropolitan Mile at Belmont July 4, provided the horse recovers from the Carter to Weaver’s satisfaction and does well over the next four weeks.
“I’ve never had a horse with this much talent and determination. He just knows what he is,” Weaver said.
Bred in Kentucky by Alpha Delta Stables, Vekoma was purchased by R. A. Hill Stable for $135,000 at the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale. Vekoma is out of Grade 1 Humana Distaff Stakes winner Mona de Momma, by Speightstown.