By Richard Rosenblatt
A clean break and a less-than-speedy early pace turned out to be the perfect setup for Vekoma in the $500,000 Metropolitan Mile (G1) at Belmont Park on the Fourth of July.
The rising star continued his perfect 4-year-old season by leading at every call under Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano and winning the prestigious Met Mile on Saturday against one of the toughest fields in any race this year.
Breaking on top in the eight-horse field that included Grade 1 winners Code of Honor and McKinzie, Vekoma led the field through a 45.87-second half mile, and had plenty left to defeat 13-1 long shot Network Effect by 1 ¼ lengths, with Code of Honor a neck back in third place.
Warrior’s Charge, who ran second into the stretch, ended up fourth, followed by favorite McKinzie, Mr Freeze, Endorsed and Hog Creek Hustle.
Trained by George Weaver, Vekoma has now reeled off impressive victories in the Sir Shackleton at Gulfstream Park on March 28, romped by 7 1/4 lengths in the Carter Handicap (G1) at Belmont on June 6, and now has to rank among the top older horses.
The victory in a race won by champion Mitole last year gives Vekoma – and owners R.A, Hill Stables and Gastas Stables — a free ride into the Breeder’s Cup Dirt Mile (G1) at Keeneland in November.
Vekoma, the slight second betting choice behind Bob Baffert-trained McKinzie, covered the mile in a swift 1:32.88, among the fastest times in 127 editions of the race.
The race did not go exactly as planned, but Castellano adjusted accordingly.
“I made a decision and used my best judgment and I think it paid off today,’’ he told the NYRA press office. “The way I handicapped the race, I thought I would sit behind the two outside horses (Mr. Freeze, No. 7; Warrior’s Charge, No. 8) and then go around them and get it done.
“But he broke so well out of the gate, I didn’t want to take away anything that comes easy. I dictated the pace in a nice way and he took it from there.”
With just under a half-mile to go, Warrior’s Charge and Network Effect made their moves, but “but he’s such a great horse and such an honest horse.
“The further he went the stronger he got.”
Weaver was delighted with Vekoma’s effort in the Carter, and came away even more impressed after the Met Mile, one of five graded stakes on Belmont’s Fourth of July card.
“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.”
Before the Breeders’ Cup, it’s likely n to the Whitney Stakes (G1) at Saratoga on Aug. 8.
“We’re going to nominate to the Whitney for sure, but 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. 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 returned $5.90 to win on a $2 wager.
A big disappointment was McKinzie, winner of the Triple Bend (G1) at Santa Anita on June 7 and supposedly on the rise. The 5-year-old, winner of the 2019 Whitney, ran second to Mitole in last year’s Met Mile, and Baffert was hoping for a better outcome
“They didn’t go as fast up front as I thought they would; 23 and 45 for these horses is slow. The winner is a nice horse but it was a little too short for him.”
2019 Travers winner Code of Honor, coming off a win in the Westchester Stakes (G3), raced in last place until the stretch, and just missed getting second.
“They didn’t go as fast up front as I thought they would; 23 and 45 for these horses is slow,’’ Code of Honor jockey John Velazquez said “The winner is a nice horse but it was a little too short for him.”
Instilled Regard ($6.30) staged a strong rally in the stretch and won by a neck over Rockemperor to give trainer Chad Brown a 1-2 finish in the $400,000 Manhattan Stakes (G1) over a firm turf course. Sadler’s Joy was third and Channel Maker fourth in the eight-horse field. Instilled Regard, ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr., won the Fort Marcy (G2) at Belmont on June 6 in his previous start.
“His mind is getting better and better every time he runs on the grass. With this horse, he does everything you want,’’ Ortiz said. “I like that. I can use it to get in position and he comes back to me so well. He saved all the energy until the end. When I asked him for it, he gave it. I had to work so hard but when I tipped him out, he responded so well. I knew I had a chance to get there, and he got there on time.”
It was the sixth win in the Manhattan for Brown.
The hard-luck 4-year-old trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott finally returned to the winner’s circle with an 8 ¾-length victory over Moretti in the $200,000 Suburban Handicap.
After a serious of second and third-place finishes from the 2019 Kentucky Derby (G1) to the Belmont Stakes (G1), Travers (G1), Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), and a fifth in the Saudi Cup and fourth in the Oaklawn Handicap (G2), Tacitus won for the first time since the ’19 Wood Memorial (G2).
Tacitus, ridden by John Velazquez, broke well and race in fourth place in the field of six, closer to the lead than usual. But he then took control in the stretch, rolling past Parsimony and winning as the even-money favorite ($4.20).
With four wins from 12 starts (plus all those second and thirds), Tacitus has earned $2,817,500.
“We’ve put a lot into this horse. We took him to some big races and he’s run some good races,’’ Mott said. “We took him half way around the world earlier this year looking for something like that in Saudi and in Dubai before they canceled the race.”
Social Paranoia ($11.80) made a huge stretch run and took the lead in the final sixteenth for a one-length win over Seismic Wave in the $150,000 Poker (G3). Favorite Value Proposition was third, and Got Stormy fourth in mile on the turf.
Winning time was 1:36.30.
“It was a good trip. I knew they were going slow but he was very relaxed. When we made our move, I had to go wide because they were going so slow,” winning rider Jose Ortiz said. “I knew everyone was going to have a really good run to the end but when I passed the eighth pole, he was going really nice. He put his head down and rolled home.”
Favorite Frank’s Rockette ($2.90) held off constant pressure from Reagan’s Edge and Center Aisle throughout and won the $100,000 Victory Ride (G3) by a head (over Reagan’s Edge).
Winning time for the 6 ½ furlongs was a speedy 1:14.47.
Five-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert may have another contender for the Derby on Sept. 5 after Uncle Chuck ($2.80) won the $150,000 Los Alamitos Derby (G3) on Saturday. He’s now 2-for-2 and earned 20 Derby qualifying points with the victory.
Thousand Words, also trained by Baffert, finished second in the four-horse field and picked up eight Derby-qualifying points to move to No. 15 on the leaderboard with 33 points. Uncle Chuck is 21st.
The Derby field is limited to the top 20 starters based on qualifying points.
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.