Trainer Rudy Rodriguez knows just how he would like to celebrate the 10th anniversary of New York-based gelding Funny Cide winning the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). He'd love to send out Vyjack, another New York-based gelding, to victory in the Louisville classic May 4 at Churchill Downs.
Sackatoga Stable's Funny Cide was based in New York with trainer Barclay Tagg, who had not previously sent a horse to the Derby. Pick Six Racing's Vyjack also is based in New York with a trainer entering a horse for the first time in Rodriguez.
A former jockey and exercise rider, Rodriguez has enjoyed success with his New York-based stable since taking out his trainer's license in 2010. Can lightning strike twice?
"Let's hope everything works out like that again," Rodriguez said with a smile on the Churchill backstretch after he galloped Vyjack and cooled him out in the barn. "I guess we have the same chance as everyone else. You have to have a lot of luck in the Derby and a good horse. We have a good horse."
Funny Cide ended a 74-year drought for geldings with his victory over runner-up Empire Maker in the 2003 Derby. Unlike Funny Cide, Vyjack will not be facing a long drought by geldings in the Derby. In 2009 Mine That Bird became the second gelding to win the 1 1/4-mile classic in six years and the ninth overall.
Unlike New York-bred Funny Cide, Vyjack was bred in Kentucky by Machmer Hall. Out of the Stravinsky mare Life Happened, Vyjack was purchased for $100,000 by David Wilkenfeld's Pick Six Racing at last year's Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale of 2-year-olds in training. After the sale, the Into Mischief colt began early training at Fair Hill but proved difficult.
"They say he was acting like a stallion, doing things he wasn't supposed to do," Rodriguez said. "I guess that's why they gelded him... Mentally, they're not all prepared to do what you ask them. He didn't want to train. In the beginning, he didn't want to do anything, pretty much."
Wilkenfeld said it was a difficult decision to geld Vyjack but there were few other options.
"We had to geld the horse as a 2-year-old and it's something that most horse owners would prefer not to have to do," Wilkenfeld said. "Even when he first got to Rudy, he was really difficult and, at times, he didn't even want to go on the track and train. So it's been a long process."
Rodriguez began to train Vyjack for his maiden special weight debut, which he won Nov. 10 at Aqueduct Race Track. Focused on racing, Vyjack won his first four starts. He closed out last season with a win in the Jerome Stakes (gr. II) and opened this year with a win in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III).
Rodriguez said Vyjack is an intelligent horse who is capable of adjusting his running style as needed. In the Jerome, Vyjack nearly went gate-to-wire, but in the Gotham he rallied from eighth. Vyjack then rallied from fifth in the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) to finish third behind two other horses being pointed to the Derby, Verrazano and Normandy Invasion.
"It's very, very important," Rodriguez said of that versatility. "If they give him the lead, he's comfortable on the lead. If he gets a fast pace, he can relax. It's very, very good to have that kind of a horse.
"A lot of the horses can't do that. He can adjust. We're happy to have him in the Derby."
Wilkenfeld credits Rodriguez and his team for teaching Vyjack to relax, a quality he displayed in the Gotham after the Jerome win.
"That was always the plan, to teach him how to relax because he's built like a distance horse, and when he did train, there was always the feeling that he had the lung capacity to want to run all day," Wilkenfeld said. "The way he gallops, he doesn't want to come off the track. The transformation from the way he ran in the Jerome and what you saw in the Gotham, I think, is a big credit to the training job that Rudy and his team have done with the horse."
Vyjack also will need to adjust to jockey Garrett Gomez, who will be aboard for the first time. Joel Rosario, fresh off a record-setting meet at Keeneland, was aboard Vyjack in his two starts this year but he will ride Orb in the Derby.
Next to Vyjack's stall at Churchill Downs is a large red "R." The letter is not for Rodriguez but for trainer Dale Romans, who welcomed the first-time Derby trainer to his Churchill barn. Rodriguez, who continues to use his riding skills to exercise many of his horses, said Vyjack's personality can be fickle but he's a happy horse.
"He changes a little from day to day: Sometimes he's aggressive, sometimes he's a little quiet," Rodriguez said. "He's a happy horse. That's what we want, a happy horse."
|Geldings to win Kentucky Derby|
|1929||Clyde Van Dusen|
|2009||Mine That Bird|