John Clay

With racing’s fingers crossed, top contenders close in on Kentucky Derby

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.

For a sport collectively holding its breath, the biggest day of Kentucky Derby prep races yielded a mixed bag.

Favorites won the Wood Memorial in New York and the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes in Kentucky, while a pair of Bob Baffert-trained entries ran 1-2 in the Santa Anita Derby in California as the heaviest of hitters took final aim at the Kentucky Derby on May 4 at Churchill Downs.

Yet horse racing’s dominant story of late has been the troubling and puzzling spike in equine fatalities. Especially at Santa Anita, where 23 horses have been euthanized because of catastrophic injuries since the facility opened its winter meeting in December.

Unfortunately, Keeneland proved Saturday it was not immune from the tragedies when the 4-year-old filly Cathedral Reader broke down in the stretch of the Grade 1 Madison and was later euthanized. In an example of the highs and lows of the sport, trainer Dallas Stewart won the very next race when his 52-1 long shot Out for a Spin won the Grade 1, $500,000 Central Bank Ashland Stakes.

One race later, another D. Wayne Lukas protégé, George Weaver, watched his talented 3-year-old Vekoma place himself squarely in the Derby picture with an impressive win in the Blue Grass before a crowd of 34,775.

Coming off a four-month layoff, Vekoma had finished third in a hotly-contested Fountain of Youth. This time, Weaver instructed jockey Javier Castellano to have the son of Candy Ride more forwardly placed. The strategy worked to perfection as Vekoma passed leader Somelikeithotbrown at the top of the stretch and continued on to a 3 1/2-length victory over Win Win Win in the Grade 2, $1 million race.

“He’s so talented,” said Weaver of Vekoma. “He’s done things in the morning that I haven’t had a horse do.”

Meanwhile in New York, Hall of Famer Bill Mott has trained a lot of talented horses to do a lot of special things. Winning the Kentucky Derby, however, is not one of them. But Mott looks like he might have his best shot with Tacitus, who followed his March 9 win in the Tampa Bay Derby with a score in the Grade 2, $750,0000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Saturday.

Owned by Juddmonte Farms, Tacitus had raced just twice before his win in Tampa. Known more for working with older horses, Mott has had just seven entries in the Kentucky Derby. His best finish came last year when Hofburg ran seventh. With Tacitus, he has a chance at doing much better this time around.

Out West, Baffert has trained five Kentucky Derby winners, including two who went on to capture the Triple Crown — American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018. He entered 2019 with Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champ Game Winner as the early Derby favorite, at least until the son of Candy Ride ran second in a division of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 16.

Game Winner ran second again Saturday, this time to stablemate Roadster, ridden by Mike Smith. “Too bad it couldn’t have been a dead heat,” Baffert said afterward.

At one time, the trainer pronounced Roadster as his barn’s heir apparent to Justify. After the son of Quality Road ran third in the Del Mar Futurity last year, won by Game Winner, Baffert discovered the colt had a throat problem that needed surgical attention. Following a six-month layoff, Roadster won an allowance race at Santa Anita as a tuneup for the Santa Anita Derby. The plan worked.

And next week, Baffert sends Los Alamitos Futurity winner Improbable to the post in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby, the final 100-point prep race for the first Saturday in May.

Between now and then, however, the sport will have its fingers crossed that when a national audience tunes into Churchill Downs on May 4 the narrative is about horse racing and not horse-racing tragedies.

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