Watching Vekoma never gets old for George Weaver.
“I’m just amazed at what he does,” Weaver said last week, before Vekoma added a second Grade 1 win to his resume in Saturday’s Met Mile at Belmont Park. “What he does in the morning, what he does in the afternoon. He’s just a cool horse.”
Weaver expressed similar sentiments after Vekoma won his first Grade 1 in the Carter Handicap June 6 at Belmont. The Carter was one thing. The Met Mile is another.
Vekoma won the Met Mile on the lead, fending off early tepid challenges from Warrior’s Charge through honest fractions of :22.73 and :45.87. The son of Candy Ride clicked past 6 furlongs in 1:09.57, a length clear and gave Weaver some concern turning for home.
“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 maintained his advantage through the lane while eventual runner-up Network Effect passed Warrior’s Charge and Code Of Honor, the slight favorite in the field of eight, circled on the outside. Network Effect could only get to 1 1/4 lengths of Vekoma at the finish and edged Code Of Honor by a neck for the place spot.
Vekoma finished in 1:32.88, not far off Najran’s 2003 track record 1:32.24.
Weaver expected a big effort from Vekoma, who came into the Met Mile with only two blemishes on his record in seven starts. He finished third behind Code Of Honor in the Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth in his 3-year-old debut – and first start in three months – and 13th (12th via disqualification) in the Kentucky Derby.
“He’s a really, really athletic horse and nothing would surprise me but I always thought he would be better around one turn,” Weaver said of Vekoma, who did win the Grade 2 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes around two turns at Keeneland. “We focused on a seven-eighths race to start, came back in the seven-eighths Carter, the Met Mile is a one-turn mile and he’s won the one-turn mile Nashua at 2. I think he’s going to like the distance.”
Vekoma not only liked the distance he improved to 3-for-3 at the mile trip.
Now Weaver faces the decision to stretch Vekoma out again – he mentioned nominating to the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga Aug. 1 – or keep him sprinting. The ultimate goal is a return to Keeneland for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
“He’s run two huge races back-to-back,” Weaver said. “The most likely scenario, to me, is that he would come back in a race like the Forego (at 7 furlongs Aug. 29 at Saratoga). We want to plot a campaign to get us to the Breeders' Cup, so we’ll take a look at the calendar and go from there.”
Vekoma’s victory topped a stellar July 4 card at Belmont. Other highlights included Chad Brown sending out the 1-2 finishers in the Grade 1 Manhattan in Instilled Regard and Rockemperor, Juddmonte Farm’s Tacitus adding another graded stakes with blinkers on in the Grade 2 Suburban, The Elkstone Group’s Social Paranoia in the Grade 3 Poker and Frank Fletcher’s Frank’s Rockette edging longshot Reagan’s Edge in the Grade 3 Victory Ride. – Tom Law
Horse to Watch: Bob Baffert may have unleashed another Kentucky Derby prospect Saturday evening when stepping last month’s 7-length maiden winner Uncle Chuck up into stakes company in the Grade 3 Los Alamitos Derby.
Making only his second career start, Uncle Chuck proved much the best when following the leading Great Power for most of the 9-furlong stakes before taking command around the turn. His inexperience showed late when he drifted in down the stretch but was still good enough to beat Grade 2 winner Thousand Words by 4 lengths with third-placed Cosmo 7 lengths back in third.
“He’s still pretty green, but he’s got gears,” said Baffert. “Luis (Saez) was excited about him and I think he’s one of the top riders in the country. He said (Uncle Chuck) is still learning and he’s got a lot of improvement in him. He was full of himself when he came back. It’s exciting. He’s learning quickly and he has brilliance. I was impressed. We just saw something pretty special and he’s been special from Day 1. He’s bred to be any kind.”
Purchased for $250,000 at the 2018 Keeneland September yearling sale, the son of Uncle Mo out of Forest Music earned 20 points toward a spot in the starting gate for the rescheduled Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby with the victory. He ranked 21st on the leaderboard through Saturday night, just two points behind Anneau d’Or in 20th. – Melissa Bauer-Herzog
Trainer of the Week: Trainer Aidan O’Brien won a record eighth Group 1 Investec Epsom Derby Saturday to become the winningest trainer in the race’s long history. O’Brien won when Serpentine opened up by more than a dozen lengths on the field at one point and never came back as expected to win by 5 1/2 lengths.
The victory was the second Derby in as many weeks for O’Brien, who also trained last week’s Group 1 Irish Derby winner Santiago.
“We are so delighted,” O’Brien said. “We are in a very privileged position to have such unbelievable horses and such unbelievably well-bred horses. We are working with special people. It is a position very few people will ever get into. The horses have such incredible pedigrees, top and bottom. There are so many special people involved and everyone puts their heart and soul into it day in, day out. Everyone loves what they do and we really appreciate every opportunity that we get and how grateful we are to everyone for what they do. It is just very special for us to be part of such a special team of people.”
Serpentine was the second big winner of the day for O’Brien after Love put in a devastating display in the Group 1 Investec Oaks two races before the Derby. The filly raced mid-pack as the pacemakers broke off from the field to enter a duel multiple lengths in front of the field before fading in the stretch. It was all Love from there as she ran away with a 9-length victory to become only the third filly in the 2000s to pull off the One Thousand Guineas-Oaks double. – Melissa Bauer-Herzog
Quote of the Week: “He’s a very, very solid horse and he always shows up.” – Todd Pletcher on Social Paranoia.
Third in the Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes in 2018 as a 2-year-old, Social Paranoia has raced exclusively in stakes since breaking his maiden in his first 3-year-old start the following year. The 4-year-old Street Boss colt has placed in seven of those nine stakes races, including three victories with a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby in his only attempt at that level.
Handicapper’s Report: Charles Bedard crushed Saturday’s Met Mile card at Belmont Park, picking eight of the 11 winners on the day.
Charles tabbed the first five winners of the day - Charlotte Webley in the first, Tribhuvan in the second, Frank’s Rockette in the Grade 3 Victory Ride, Mr Jaggers in the fourth and Fortin Hill in the fifth. He went every-other-race from there, picking Dante’s Fire in the seventh, Instilled Regard in the Grade 1 Mahattan and Tacitus in the Grade 2 Suburban.
Charles improved his spring-summer season record to 101-for-303 (33.3 percent).
Tom Law picked five winners – Charlotte Webley, Frank’s Rockette, Mr Jaggers, Publication in the sixth and Instilled Regard. He improved to 97-for-303 (32 percent).
John Shapazian took home top honors for the spring-summer season – we start over when the Opening Day edition of The Saratoga Special hits the virtual newsstands July 16 – with a record of 108-for-303 (35.6 percent). John picked four winners Saturday - Charlotte Webley, Frank’s Rockette, Mr Jaggers and Instilled Regard.
Rob Whitlock also picked five winners - Charlotte Webley, Tribhuvan, Frank’s Rockette, Fortin Hill and Vekoma in the Grade 1 Met Mile. He finished the season 80-for-303 (26.7 percent).
TVG’s Gabby Gaudet finished her second week as the guest handicapper with three winners - Charlotte Webley, Frank’s Rockette and Tacitus. She posted a mark of 7-for-22 (31.8 percent) for the two-week stint. – Tom Law
Bits and Pieces: 2018 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Enable finished second to Ghaiyyath in her 2020 debut in the Group 1 Coral-Eclipse Stakes Sunday. It is the second straight Group 1 victory for the son of Dubawi. … Make Believe’s Mishriff won Sunday’s Group 1 Prix du Jockey Club, his second straight stakes victory. … A day after his father won the Investec Oaks and Derby in England, Donnacha O’Brien became the latest in the family to train a classic winner with Fancy Blue’s win in the Group 1 Prix de Diane at Chantilly. … Flat Out Speed took her record to 5-for-6 Sunday with a 1 3/4-length victory in the Grade 3 Iowa Oaks. … Night Ops won his third race of 2020 Sunday with a win in the Grade 3 Cornhusker Handicap. … Lone Star Park was forced to suspend live racing for the foreseeable future on Sunday afternoon due to Covid-19 concerns.