Keeneland

Vekoma — trained by a Louisville native — wins Blue Grass Stakes to earn Kentucky Derby spot

Trainer of Blue Grass Stakes winner thrilled with home win

Trainer George Weaver talks about Vekoma’s victory in the Grade 1 $1 million dollar Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course on Saturday, April 6, 2019. Vekoma moves on to the Kentucky Derby to be run May 4 at Churchill Downs.
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Trainer George Weaver talks about Vekoma’s victory in the Grade 1 $1 million dollar Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course on Saturday, April 6, 2019. Vekoma moves on to the Kentucky Derby to be run May 4 at Churchill Downs.

His connections already knew he was talented.

What they really wanted to know about Vekoma — what they needed to know about the lightly raced favorite heading into this Toyota Blue Grass Stakes — was whether the young 3-year-old had what it took to get the distance that would keep him in the Kentucky Derby conversation.

That question was answered in the Keeneland homestretch Saturday afternoon.

“When he came to the top of the stretch and had horse and kind of opened up like he did,” trainer George Weaver said, “I thought he was going to be hard to run down.”

Vekoma broke cleanly from the second post in the full field of 14, settled a few feet off the rail — and about a length behind pace-setter Somelikeithotbrown — stuck a head in front in the final turn and was more than a length clear when they hit the top of the stretch.

By the time they were mid-stretch, it was clear no one was going to catch him.

“He’s an athlete, and nothing would ever surprise me about him,” Weaver said.

Vekoma — the 7-5 favorite and son of Candy Ride — won by 3 ½ lengths over Win Win Win with Signalman another nose behind in third. Vekoma’s dam is Grade 1-winning sprinter Mona De Momma, who was sired by champion sprinter Speightstown, and that’s what raised the distance questions.

He won both of his races as a 2-year-old last year, then finished third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes — which featured a hot pace — to start his 2019 campaign.

Before Saturday’s race, Weaver said he talked to jockey Javier Castellano, who was aboard Vekoma for the first time, and told him to just get in a good spot going into the first turn. He wasn’t necessarily concerned about the pace. “I wanted to know if he can go the distance,” Weaver said. “… I thought he rode a perfect race.”

Castellano worked Vekoma last weekend in Florida and had been studying up on his style.

“Every time I asked him, he kicked on a little bit,” he said. “I’ve been learning about the horse. I’ve been watching his races. I really fell in love with the horse last week when I worked the horse. I was very optimistic about winning the race today.”

History was against Vekoma, who became the first horse since Coaltown in 1948 to win the Blue Grass Stakes with just three previous starts.

That wasn’t by design. Vekoma was a May 22 foal — so he technically won’t be a 3-year-old until about three weeks after the Kentucky Derby — and his connections felt he needed a break after his victory in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes last November. He spent nearly four months on the sidelines before returning to racing in the Fountain of Youth on March 2.

“This horse was a late May baby and he needed a little break after the Nashua — I didn’t really have a choice,” Weaver said. “I personally believe that Derby horses are better served to have more races and be battle-tested and such. So it’s not by design that he’s lightly raced, it’s just the timing.

“I would prefer to have more races under his belt, but it doesn’t surprise me that he won the Blue Grass with just three races under his belt. Just because he’s been such an athlete. He really has. I haven’t had a colt like him.”

Weaver, who worked for D. Wayne Lukas and then Todd Pletcher before striking out on his own, is a Louisville native who will return to the Kentucky Derby next month after finishing 17th with Tencendur four years ago. His first trip back home for the Derby was bittersweet. Tencendur, the Wood Memorial runner-up, got sick a couple days before the race and didn’t go into it 100 percent. Even if he had, that year’s competition was pretty stiff.

“I don’t think he was ever going to beat American Pharoah,” Weaver said Saturday.

This time, Weaver went through Keeneland to get to the Kentucky Derby. He said he attended the Blue Grass Stakes every year as a kid, alongside his dad and his brother. “I’m pretty tore up. … Winning this race is very special.”

And, win or lose four weeks from now, he knows what kind of colt he’s taking back home to Louisville.

“This horse is very intelligent,” Weaver said. “He knows what he’s here for. He knows he’s a racehorse. He knows how to win. And he’ll give 110 percent. Those things I know about him — he’s very smart, and he’ll give everything he’s got.”

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