04/30/2013 2:30PM

Kentucky Derby: Rodriguez stays focused on Vyjack amid controversy

Barbara D. Livingston
Rudy Rodriguez with Vyjack, whose stall in barn 4 at Churchill is monitored by video surveillance, a condition mandated by the KHRC when Rodriguez’s trainer’s license was approved.

Though he is stabled well off the beaten path from wh ere the majority of Kentucky Derby horses are housed this week at Churchill Downs, trainer Rudy Rodriguez can’t hide.

Literally, his every move – or at least those of his first Derby starter, Vyjack – is being watched. While round-the-clock security will be provided for all Derby horses beginning Wednesday, Vyjack has been subject to 24-hour surveillance since his arrival April 20, with four cameras installed in the gelding’s stall in barn 4.

That was a condition mandated by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in exchange for granting Rodriguez a trainer’s license to run Vyjack in Saturday’s $2 million Kentucky Derby.

“It’s hard,” Rodriguez said in a recent interview. “You go through all this or you don’t want to go. If you train horses and you don’t want to think of the Derby, you might as well not be in the game.”

Though viewed by some outsiders as an overnight sensation, Rodriguez, a native of Mexico, has been involved in racing in the U.S. for more than two decades.

Before he started training in February 2010, Rodriguez worked for trainers Richard Dutrow Sr., Richard Dutrow Jr., and the late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel.

“You’ve got to be very, very lucky to work with those kinds of people,” said Rodriguez, who turns 41 on Wednesday. “[Dutrow Sr.] used to be very demanding, but he used to be very good. He taught me a lot. Rick, too, he gave me an opportunity. Bobby used to treat me very good.”

Rodriguez galloped Empire Maker for Frankel before his victory in the 2003 Wood Memorial. Empire Maker, who came up with a foot issue Derby week, finished second to Funny Cide in that year’s Kentucky Derby.

Rodriguez was an exercise rider and a jockey, riding good horses in the morning, mostly bad ones in the afternoon. From 1992-2010, he rode 221 winners from 3,901 mounts.

“I was working a lot of horses for a lot of people and riding the worst ones,” Rodriguez said.

Since he began training, Rodriguez has won 364 races from 1,621 starters and was the leading trainer at the 2010 Belmont Park fall meet.

That success, combined with his recent 20-day suspension for two overages of the medication Flunixin − or banamine, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug − and his past association with Dutrow Jr., has made Rodriguez a lightning-rod for controversy. A third Flunixin positive, reported to be at an absurdly high level, is being investigated by New York racing officials and could lead to further penalties.

Rodriguez’s tenure as an employee of Dutrow Jr., now serving a 10-year suspension from New York regulators for multiple rules violations, dominated the discussion at his recent Kentucky hearing. In 2007, Rodriguez was suspended, along with Dutrow and Dutrow’s assistant, for his role in providing misinformation about the horse Wild Desert before his win in the 2005 Queen’s Plate at Woodbine. At the time, Rodriguez was just an exercise rider.

What was once a close relationship between Rodriguez and Dutrow deteriorated when Rodriguez went out on his own in 2010.

“I think he got upset when I left,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to leave on good terms.”

Before Dutrow was ruled off the grounds, he and Rodriguez were stabled at Aqueduct but rarely spoke. Dutrow declined to speak about him now.

“I said, ‘Good morning,’ and that was it,” Rodriguez said.

Jim Riccio Sr., one of the sharpest claiming owners on the New York Racing Association circuit, had horses with Dutrow for many years and has now moved some to Rodriguez.

“Rick told me probably 10 years ago, when Rudy goes out on his own he’s going to be excellent; he knows what’s wrong with the horses when he gets on them,” Riccio said. “[Dutrow] said he’s going to be a good trainer, and I value Rick’s opinion. When Rudy came out and started doing well I wasn’t surprised.”

That Rodriguez still gets on horses every morning is viewed as a big advantage by Riccio.

“When you know what’s bothering them then you can help them,” Riccio said. “He’s definitely not an overnight sensation. He’s a well-liked guy. A lot of Rick’s owners wanted to give him horses.”

A lot did. Rodriguez, who is ably assisted by his brother Gustavo, has built an 80-to-90 horse stable. He recently sent 20 head to Monmouth Park.

Rodriguez said he didn’t necessarily want to be that big, but he is trying to accommodate all his clients who want to race in New York.

“To keep horses and feed them the right way costs a lot of money,” Rodriguez said. “If you try to cut corners you can save money. I don’t want to do that. I want to try and give the horses the best care.”

Rodriguez’s work ethic has caught the eye of many horsemen. Dale Romans, the Eclipse Award-winning trainer of 2012, first met Rodriguez in 2008, when Rodriguez got on horses for him in Dubai. Romans was impressed enough with Rodriguez that he was a character witness for him at Rodriguez’s Kentucky licensing hearing.

“I felt there was an injustice going on here,” said Romans, in whose barn Vyjack is residing this week. “I have no problem vouching for Rudy. Everybody in New York knows Rudy’s barn. He’s always there. There’s no overnight [success] in this business.”

Rodriguez’s work with Vyjack is testament to his horsemanship skills. Vyjack was a difficult gelding to train early in his career, but Rodriguez, who gets on Vyjack almost daily, got the horse to relax so much so that he came from second-to-last to win the Grade 3 Gotham.

Vyjack, owned by entrepreneur David Wilkenfeld, suffered his first loss when third in the Wood Memorial. The horse came out of the race with a respiratory infection and spent 13 days at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland, where he received several treatments in a hyperbaric chamber.

Despite Rodriguez’s recent trouble, Wilkenfeld said he never thought about moving the horse to another trainer.

“I was by his side all the way,” Wilkenfeld said. “I never spoke to another trainer. I never thought about another trainer. He’s my guy. He’s done a tremendous job with the horse. I’ve developed a friendship with him. He’s done right be me and right by the horse. He runs a professional operation. He has to put up with a lot of [nonsense], but I never let it distract me.”

Rodriguez said he won’t let the scrutiny interfere with his first Derby experience.

“It’s everybody’s dream, for a jockey, for a trainer, for an owner,” Rodriguez said about the Derby. “If you’re in this business just to try and make money I don’t think it’s going to work. It’s more about the work and being in these kind of races and be able to compete in that race. That’s the goal.”