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Gotham Stakes: Vyjack gives owner first shot at Kentucky Derby
David Wilkenfeld has already made the score of a lifetime that most horseplayers can only dream about. In 2008, he had the sole winning ticket of a $3.3 million pick six at Santa Anita.
Five years later, Wilkenfeld is on the cusp of being able to live the dream that virtually every horse owner wants to experience. As the owner of Vyjack, Wilkenfeld has an undefeated 3-year-old who could be on his way to the Kentucky Derby.
Wilkenfeld will find out Saturday how much of a reality that dream could become when Vyjack faces his sternest test to date in the Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. The winner of the Gotham earns 50 qualifying points to the Kentucky Derby, to be run May 4 at Churchill Downs.
“The opportunity to have a horse in the Derby – as a longtime fan – you can imagine it’s a huge thrill, a dream I never thought could happen,” Wilkenfeld, 55, said. “We’re not that far off. I know everything has to go right. Just to have your horse in the Futures as one of 23, I feel like it’s a nice accomplishment.”
Vyjack, named after Wilkenfeld’s parents, Vivienne and Jack, was one of 23 individual horses offered by Churchill Downs in the first pool of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager on Feb. 8-10. Vyjack, trained by Rudy Rodriguez, closed at odds of 49-1, the 14th betting choice among 24, including a mutuel field that consisted of 346 horses.
Vyjack, a gelding, is the first horse Wilkenfeld purchased at auction. Wilkenfeld paid $100,000 for Vyjack at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic sale of 2-year-olds in training last May at Timonium, Md.
Vyjack was the top choice on Wilkenfeld’s short list of potential purchases. Wilkenfeld worked with Sohby Sonbol, the former racing manager for Ahmed Zayat’s racing operation, in selecting Vyjack.
Wilkenfeld liked Vyjack’s pedigree – he’s by the Grade 1 stakes-winning freshman sire Into Mischief and is a half-brother to the multiple stakes-placed Prime Cut. Deeper in the pedigree is Miss Slewpy, the winner of the Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct in 1996, when the race was run at 1 1/4 miles.
Wilkenfeld was also impressed with Vyjack’s three-furlong workout in 34.40 seconds.
“This was the one I really wanted,” said Wilkenfeld, who had previously owned a few claiming horses. “It was early on in the sale, [and] I got him for the price I was willing to go to. I looked at some of the others, and I put a pretty tight budget on them, and they weren’t as exciting to me anyway. I wanted to get my feet wet. The rest, so far, has been a great ride.”
Wilkenfeld sent the horse to Bruce Jackson at Fair Hill to get him started. Vyjack was extremely studdish, according to Wilkenfeld, so Jackson recommended gelding the horse.
“You never want to geld a horse before you run him, but we spoke to the consignor, who confirmed what Bruce said about the horse [being aggressive],” Wilkenfeld said. “I’d rather have a racehorse that could do something than wait around and fight the horse. And he’s still aggressive. I listened to people who knew best.”
Wilkenfeld gave the gelding to Rodriguez to train. Wilkenfeld liked that Rodriguez didn’t have a lot of high-profile horses and that, as a former jockey, he got on many of his horses himself in the morning.
“He can get on your horse every morning; he’s been around the game a long time,” Wilkenfeld said. “I thought he would be a great guy to work with. With a one-horse stable, you don’t want to get lost in a big operation. The horse is a little difficult, as you can see in some of his races.”
Vyjack debuted Nov. 10 at Aqueduct, winning a 6 1/2-furlong maiden race by 1 3/4 lengths. Among those he beat were Clawback, who has since won two straight, including the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, and Orb, who has since won three straight, including last Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream.
On Dec. 9, Vyjack won the Traskwood Stakes by 5 3/4 lengths over Always in a Tiz, who came back to lose by a neck in the Smarty Jones last month before finishing a well-beaten fifth in the Southwest on Feb. 18.
Vyjack made his two-turn debut in the Grade 2 Jerome on Jan. 5, winning by a head over a stubborn Siete de Oros. Vyjack showed how difficult he could be as he was trying to bear out under Cornelio Velasquez.
That led Wilkenfeld to make a rider change to Joel Rosario for the Gotham, an unorthodox move considering Velasquez was 3-for-3 on the gelding.
“I just think Cornelio is better with horses that aren’t as aggressive,” Wilkenfeld said. “I just felt they were fighting each other a little bit. I thought there were other guys that were a good fit, and when [Rosario] became available, I decided to make a change. It was not an easy thing to do. We had a lot of success together; it was just something I thought gave us our best shot to win going forward.”
That move illustrates Wilkenfeld’s mentality of not following conventional wisdom. He displayed that mentality five years ago when he put together a $4,320 pick-six ticket that included a 33-1 shot, Paparazzi Charm, who hadn’t been out in eight months and hadn’t won in two years. By virtue of that horse winning a claiming race, Wilkenfeld had the lone winning pick-six ticket worth $3.3 million.
“It didn’t change my life much, except it was a great moment in terms of all the efforts I put into handicapping,” Wilkenfeld said. “I was a little bit in shock; it didn’t sink in right away.”
Wilkenfeld made his play at the Meadowlands, where some friends of his were supposed to show but never did. In 2003, he had shared in a pick-six ticket worth $1.3 million at Churchill Downs.
Wilkenfeld grew up on Long Island, not far from Belmont Park, and began handicapping races from a young age. He would wager at the New York City OTB teletheaters in Manhattan, where he was introduced to Ragozin sheets.
In addition to his pick-six success, Wilkenfeld won $125,000 in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge at Santa Anita in 2009.
Wilkenfeld, who is president of the online retailer Promgirl.com, said he believes the industry needs to offer more online handicapping contests with big prizes.
“Racing needs to adapt a little bit,” Wilkenfeld said. “If they do, they have great content. It’s a great sport. People need to change with the times and focus on a marketing opportunity where the bettor can wager a small amount of money but win big.”
Wilkenfeld, it seems, has been on a personal and professional winning streak. Five months ago, his girlfriend, Tanja, gave birth to the couple’s son, Nikola. Around the same time, Wilkenfeld purchased a Tribeca penthouse apartment that published reports said was on the market for $16.5 million.
“I got a 5-month-old son, a great girlfriend, a good business, and what looks like a really good horse,” Wilkenfeld said. “Life is good.”
I always find it amusing to read these "stay loyal to your jockey" comments.....if "your jockey" had the chance to ride a better horse, he'd consider all angles (how often do I ride for this trainer, how often do I ride for the other trainer, does the trainer race high quality stock, how much better is the other horse, etc). All angles are based on one thing: what is best for the jockey.
hey bruce baudoux don't knock cornelio he's not the only rider to sit on a favorite and disappoint ,sometimes horses don't fire this is horse racing my friend .Respect the jockeys they are the ones out there.
Mr. Wilk, Since you personally seem to have a direct line to LUCK CENTRAL, we'll just wish luck to Vyjack and tell him he's three now and it's time to behave himself.
This not a good betting race; however it is a good one for watching. Due to the fallout of last weekend's Risen Star stakes, I decided to work ahead and publish my pace figures for everyone's inspection for the Gotham. The number in parentheses is the total number of furlongs representing that segment of the race; it is accompanied by the calculated feet-per-second that horse traveled in that segment. The FPS is adjusted for track variant. Champion Boy: (2) 52.8, (2) 55.5, (2) 53.7, (2.5) 51.3 - Maiden seems to be overstepping his territory, but still early in his career and as such, is still developing. Escapefromreality: (2) 53.7, (2) 54.9, (2) 53.7, (2.5) 52.3 - Slight increase in speed going down the backstrech. Kept fair amount of momentum in the last portion of the race. Pretty good effort off the bench and dangerous on that alone. Could definitely get this. Ore Pass: (2) 56.1, (2) 57.8, (2) 53.5, (1) 51.6 - Had a nice flash in the 2nd quarter, but lost over 4 FPS average in the 3rd quarter; was still good enough to hang on. However, so-so victory kept him in the barn since. Doesn't appear suited for 2 turns. Amerigo Vespucci: (2) 53.6, (2) 55.1, (2) 53.9, (2.5) 51.3 - Expected something better in this last race after having a nice 3rd in the Jerome. Not excited about his chances here. Transparent: (2) 53.7, (2) 51.7, (2) 53.7, (2.3) 52.9 - Took a big breateher in the 2nd quarter for this maiden win. Came back sorta, kinda...not a serious contender with this bunch. Now and Then: (2) 57.5, (2) 56.6, (1) 55.4, (1) 51.5 - Nice 1st quarter, not so bad in the 2nd but coule be a natural slowing down. Typical sprint characteristics. Uncertain going 2 turns, but this one might rate OK. Not one for bloodlines, but the Tiznow's always seem to be dangerous...especially at 2 turns. Could get a slice at a price. Siete De Oros: (2) 54.1, (2) 55.2, (2) 53.8, (2.5) 51.3 - All out to fade late. The Jerome was tough on him and pretty much the Withers showed what was left in the tank. The varying speeds shows that this guy was all out, all the time, trying in vain to win this last one. Don't believe there's much left in the tank. Vyjack: (2) 53.6, (2) 55.5, (2) 52.6, (2.3) 52.7 - Stayed pretty good in the final stages of winning the Jerome. However, this was almost 2 months ago. I don't think that he's going to get the nod, but he should make it interesting. Elnaawi: (2) 57.1, (2) 56.6, (2) 49.9, (2) 52.0 - Maiden took a huge breather in the 3rd quarter, but still maintained the lead. In deep here, especially since being off almost 2 months. Sky Captain: (4) 54.1, (2) 54.1, (2) 51.0, (1) 49.5 - Skipped out on facing Violence in the Fountain of Youth. On the surface, appears to be a good prep race by maintaining unwavering speed through 6 furlongs, but not what I would call a fast pace by any means; respectable. Could get some, but doubtful for the win. West Hills Giant: (2) 56.1, (2) 56.8, (1) 56.4, (1) 54.8 - Great prep race for this one. Has already showed being able to handle 2 turns breaking his maiden at Saratoga (albeit on the turf). Much to like: 5 fast furlongs of unwavering speed, price, recency, and making his 2nd start of the season. If I was to play this race, this one would get my interest. I have no doubt he will make this race QUITE interesting indeed! Overanalyze: (4) 54.3, (2) 53.7, (2) 52.6, (1) 52.7 - These are from last Nov's Remsen and don't really tell what is going to transpire. Normandy Invasion flopped in last week's Risen Star, but only because he was hard-pressed in the last furlong of the Remsen. Not sure what this one will do. I can't recommend him coming off the bench and meeting a few decent horses that have been racing recently. Besides, the name of this game is to win the Derby and I am pretty sure he has enough poonts to make the field. I think this guy is only in for exercise more than anything. If he makes a good effort, then I think he would be more dangerous in the upcoming Wood Memorial instead.
When it comes to horses such as Vyjack, Cornelio has hands like a surgeon. He gets run from him, 3 for 3 aboard him says it all.
4k for 3.3mm....Awesome dude....I hope to catch that magick someday....almost hit a 93k superfecta in mile turf 1,2 4, 5..Frankel horse ran third..nevr been on turf--lol.
wilkenfeld you heard it live on nyra network today cornelio should ride vyjack in the gotham stakes,cornelio keep up the good work . God don't like ugly respect to all jockeys .
Congrats to Vyjack on his GOTHOM victory , oh what's that , they haven't run the race yet, guess the writer should have mentioned that.
Sure can be refreshing when a real horsemen is given a chance to succeed, tired of the winners circle is becoming just another retread representative of the pletchers, assmussens, etc of the racing world. If only more owners could break the spell of illusion of corporate training methods. Why isnt longevity (which is not stamina) an attribute more trainers strive for instead of rapid repayment for investment, could that be why the stud sheds are overflowing with youngsters and 3yo derby preps have 4-6 starters?
Seems like this guy is like alot of us , dreamers ! Hit a nice Pick6, get a trainer, go find a couple horse's and enjoy life ! Good for him, Ill root for him and his horse ! Great story !