With few exceptions, the top contenders in Saturday’s $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland ran to expectations as favored Vekoma led home a parade of short-priced, proven stakes winners in the 1 1/8-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race.
Coming off of a third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park, his seasonal debut, Vekoma took a nice step forward in the Blue Grass. Facing a full field of thirteen rivals, Vekoma used his tactical speed to work out a good trip from post position two, settling into a pace-tracking position as the Jeff Ruby Stakes (gr. III) winner Somelikeithotbrown carved out steady but unremarkable fractions of :23.26, :47.03, and 1:11.55.
With three furlongs left to run, Vekoma took command and rolled into the homestretch with a commanding advantage. He was a bit messy down the lane, drifting in and out, but nevertheless maintained his lead to win unchallenged by 3 ½ lengths in 1:50.93 seconds, good for a 94 Beyer speed figure.
The habitual slow starter Win Win Win, third in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) last month, was once again slow into stride and settled in thirteenth place early before threading his way through the pack down the backstretch. Unfortunately, he ran into traffic on the far turn and had to steady behind horses, but once in the clear he finished resolutely and gained 4 ½ lengths in the final furlong to finish second by a nose over Signalman. The latter settled along the rail in fourth place for much of the race, but when the real running began he couldn’t match strides with Vekoma and flattened out late to edge Somelikeithotbrown by less than a length for third place.
“I like the way [Vekoma] broke out of the gate,” winning jockey Javier Castellano told Keeneland after the race. “In the first turn, I realized I didn’t want to dictate the pace. I tried to ride a smart race. I didn’t want to be too aggressive early; you have to save something for the end. So we tracked it. I liked the way he rated the first quarter mile, and I liked the way he finished. Every time I asked him, he kicked on a little bit.”
By finishing first and second, Vekoma and Win Win Win have moved safely into the projected Kentucky Derby field with 110 and 50 qualification points, respectively. Meanwhile, Signalman brought his total to 38 points, which is hovering near the current cutoff line, and Somelikeithotbrown with 30 points is on the outside looking in.
A son of Candy Ride out of the Grade 1-winning Speightstown mare Mona de Momma, Vekoma is trained by George Weaver and has now won three of his four starts. If all goes as planned, he’ll be Weaver’s second Kentucky Derby starter following Tencendur, who finished seventeenth in 2015. Judging from his performances so far, Vekoma could be poised to finish significantly higher in this year’s renewal of the Run for the Roses.