The Kentucky Derby is like a mountain. It never changes and never withers with time. But in some ways it does change, as every year, new climbers gather on its slopes and attempt to reach the summit, disregarding the many perils along the way. There is no greater feeling an owner can have than to see his or her colors planted atop that mountain. There is no greater feeling a breeder can have than to have created something with the speed, strength, and heart to conquer the sport’s highest peak. And there is no greater feeling a trainer can have than to guide an equine athlete up such a rigorous path and emerge victorious.
If there is one thing you can count on each year on the Kentucky Derby trail it’s that you’re going to meet new people, experience new horses, and hear new stories, as you join the horses and their connections on their ascent up the mountain.
One of those stories unfolded at Aqueduct this past Saturday, about midway down the stretch of the Gotham Stakes.
If you were unable to see the number “7” on the saddleclotch of the streaking figure blowing by horses, there was no way you would have thought it was Vyjack.
In his three previous career starts, all victories, the son of Into Mischief – Life Happened, by Stravinsky had never been worse than third at any time and never farther back than two lengths, and that was in an overnight sprint stakes, in which they went a half in :46.20 in the slop. This was a 1 1/16-mile race, in which they went a half in :48.68, and the horse gobbling up ground with every giant stride was coming from 10th in an 11-horse field.
Then, as they passed the eighth pole, came the words of track announcer John Imbriale: “And on the far outside, here comes Vyjack! And Vyjack has stormed to the lead. Vyjack now drawing away in deep stretch.”
The final margin was 2 1/4 lengths, and just like that, the Derby trail had a new shining star, who had undergone a transformation unlike anything seen by a young 3-year-old in quite awhile.
And so, the fascinating journey of Vyjack continues. Here is a horse whose dam was bred to freshman sire Into Mischief only because breeders Sandy Willwerth and Carrie and Craig Brogden of Machmer Hall Farm in Kentucky had a live foal breeding contract to Bernstein, who stood at Castleton Lyons Farm at the time. On the day Life Happened needed to be bred to Bernstein, Carrie was informed that the stallion was completely booked that day. Not wanting to miss the mare’s cycle, she substituted another mare to breed to Bernstein at a later date, and now desperately needed a stallion for Life Happened that same day.
Brogden called Spendthrift Farm and asked stallion director Ken Wilkins, with whom she was friendly, what stallions were available to breed to that afternoon. She was told Into Mischief was open. She liked the fact he was a grade I-winning son of Harlan’s Holiday and decided on the spot to send Life Happened to him that afternoon. So, the mating of Vyjack came about strictly by accident…or perhaps a better word would be fate.
“Life Happened had had a beautiful Bernstein colt that sold for $475,000 as a yearling,” Carrie Brogden said. “We had been the underbidders on him as a weanling when he sold for $50,000, and that’s when we bought her, barren, in front of him for $4,500. We loved the Bernstein colt so much and saw that he had sold great, we booked the mare back to him.”
But it wasn’t to be, as all his slots were filled that day and there were no cancellations. So, it was off to Spendthrift and a date with Into Mischief. As it turned out, the Bernstein colt on which Carrie had been the underbidder, named Prime Cut, went on to place in the Peter Pan, Lexington, and Curlin Stakes. Carrie did breed Life Happened to Bernstein the following year and she had a beautiful filly that Carrie sold at the Saratoga yearling sale for $140,000.
On Feb. 11, 2010, Vyjack was born. What he was as a baby bore no resemblance to what he would become as a yearling.
“He was always a very uncomplicated horse,” Carrie said. “He was big and strong and was always a good doer. He vetted clean and had a great big throat. We decided to take him to the Kentucky July yearling sale. Some people gave me grief because he was so big and heavy, but the horse lived on air and water. I think that in the end, those kind do great at the track. The only major thing that changed with him is that when we got to the July sale, he discovered fillies. He had to have Vicks in his nose 24/7 and lived in a lip chain when he was being shown, because he was more interested in the fillies than anything else. We had never seen this before, because in our barns, the colts and fillies are completely separated and never see each other.
“Al Pike loved him and was interested in buying him. At the time, Into Mischief was just a ho hum stallion, retired too early in his career and not much in demand. I told Al that if he bought him we would stay in on the colt and then take him to the 2-year-old sale.. He did buy him for $45,000, and the following year we took him to the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-old sale at Timonium.
“He had a strong work and was scoped seven times as I recall. I was never there, but Al kept me filled in and did a great job with the colt. After his breeze show, Sobhy Sonbol (former racing manager for Zayat Stables) Facebooked me about the colt, saying he was looking for a new client and what did I think? Sobhy and I had developed a good relationship and he knew I would, like Al Pike, always tell him the truth. I told Sobhy that I had not seen the horse since we sold him as a yearling, but Al had always told me that he was sound without issues. I did mention that the only thing that Al had told me was that the horse loved the ladies and was a bit studdish.”
Enter Dave Wilkenfeld, not exactly the most likely person Brogden would expect to buy this colt. Wilkenfeld had grown up in Hewlett Harbor on Long Island and was playing the horses as a teenager, eventually going to Manhattan to bet at the OTB teletheaters, where he began using the Ragozin Sheets. In 2003, he and several friends teamed to hit a Pick-Six at Churchill Downs for $1.3 million. Five years later, in 2008, he was supposed to meet some friends at the Meadowlands to go in partnership on a Pick Six ticket at Santa Anita. The friends never showed, so Wilkenfeld put together a $4,320 ticket by himself and he not only wound up hitting it, but he held the only winning ticket, worth $3,3 million.
Through the years, he had gone in partnership on a few claimers, but nothing of note. Then, in 2012, he decided to buy his first horse at auction.
“I liked this horse’s three-furlong work,” Wilkenfeld said. “His female family was strong. I thought there would be some value there, because he was by a freshman sire. This was the horse we wanted. We had it narrowed down to six after vetting and watching videos and doing all the pedigree analysis, but this was the one who stood out to me and Sobhy, who was very instrumental in helping me with the whole process.”
Wilkenfeld, 55, bought the colt for $100,000 and named him after his parents Vivienne and Jack. “Theyre the most amazing parents and it’s a great honor and thrill to name my first horse after them,” he said.
After the sale, Pike told Carrie that the colt came into the back ring trying to breed any filly near him and that he had been afraid some of the interested buyers would have been scared off by his antics.
“He was always a massive horse with good bone and a killer body, so I can bet that he was dragging the handler around,” Carrie said. “Sobhy emailed me that they had bought him and how thrilled they were. I was thrilled, too, as I knew he was staying in the U.S. and would be in good hands.”
But about two months later. Sonbol called Carrie to tell her they were having trouble with the colt, who had been sent to Bruce Jackson at his Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center to get his early training. He was getting more aggressive and wanted no part of training.
“He was a good-looking horse and a lovely mover,” Jackson said. “David sent him to me right from Timonium with the idea of giving him some time and letting him recover from the 2-year-old sale. I knew Sobhy from when he worked for Mr. Zayat, so that’s how the horse came to be sent here. So, we gave the horse some time, but when he started back in training, he was very very difficult and very aggressive and studdish. He was not focused at all on what he was doing and didn’t want to train.
“We persevered for a while, but it became obvious he needed to be gelded to get the best out of him. I also spoke to the consignor (Al Pike) and he confirmed that the horse had been that way at the sale. So, after putting all that information together, David and Sobhy quite rightly decided to go ahead and have him gelded. It took a while, but we finally got him going forward and put him back in training. We did a lot of work with him away from the track. The fact that he didn’t want to train when he got on the racetrack, I decided it was best to totally remove that from his program, and we just trained him in the fields and hills and everywhere around Fair Hill for as long as we could. Then, I finally worked him back into the racetrack and he was fine. He turned around mentally and never looked back.”
As for his Gotham victory, Jackson said, “That was a big turnaround. That was special. He’s a lovely looking horse and he looks the part, he really does.”
The next task was to find him a trainer. Jackson had sent some difficult horses to Rudy Rodriguez in the past with good results.
“When David asked me what I thought of him, I told him I had sent him some horses with a similar mindset as Vyjack that he’s gone on and done very well with,” Jackspn said.
So, Wilkenfeld sent Vyjack to Rodriguez, who had been a part-time jockey for many years and who exercised horses for Bobby Frankel and more recently Rick Dutrow. He had also worked for Dutrow’s father, Dick, years ago.
“Rudy is really hard-working and he gets up on the horses in the morning,” Wilkenfeld said. “And I didn’t want to get lost in a big stable. I heard good things about him and spoke to Bruce Jackson.”
Rodriguez came to the U.S. from Mexico, and his first job was picking oranges and cucumbers in Florida. He feels privileged to have hooked up with Frankel and Dutrow and feels he he’s learned from the best.
“I was very blessed to work for Bobby,” he said. “I still miss him, that’s for sure. He was very good to me and always tried to teach me what was going on. If you paid attention you learned. Trainers like Bobby and Rick Dutrow are the kind of people you want to work for, as was Rick’s father.”
Following Vyjack’s head victory in the Jerome Stakes (gr. II) Jan. 5, in which he was up close to the pace and had to fight back to eke out a head victory, Rodriguez began working with the gelding, teaching him to relax behind horses.
“We taught him to do pretty much what we wanted him to, and in these big races you don’t want a horse who has to go to the lead. He’s always been very aggressive and he still wants to play games sometimes and doesn’t want to train. You have to play with him and let him know you’re his friend. So far it’s working. I didn’t want him on the lead too soon, because he has a tendency to pull himself up. He reminds very much of Empire Maker (who he was around with Frankel). As soon as Empire Maker made the lead he would start fooling around. So we tried to teach this horse not to do that. There’s always somebody coming behind you and you don’t want your horse taken by surprise. You’re better off coming from behind and making that big move.”
That’s exactly what Vyjack did, as he roared by horses with huge, effortless strides and quickly drew clear under new rider Joel Rosario, covering the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.09. West Hills Giant, with first-time blinkers, set all the pace and hung on well to be second, a half-length in front of Elnaawi. Overanalyze, who got good position after breaking from post 11, came up empty on the far turn and raced evenly to finish fifth.
“This was amazing,” said Wilkenfeld, who races under the name Pick Six Racing. “Words can’t describe it. The way he won today was just superb. You buy a horse and you hope for this, bit it’s not something you really think about. I was nervous when I saw him that far back. I’ve been watching the races all day and every winner was either first or second or right there. It was unbelievable the way he closed. I didn’t have time to process it, actually.”
It was a bold move by Wilkenfeld to take Cornelio Velasquez off Vyjack after winning all three of his starts.
“I made the decision to switch riders, and all I can say is, Joel is a great rider and he fit the horse well. He got him to relax, but it is what it is.”
With a Gotham victory comes visions of roses and mint juleps and Twin Spires. “The way he ran today, you definitely start thinking more seriously about the Derby,” Wilkenfeld said. “But I like to take one race at a time. I’ve been in the game long enough to know you can’t take anything for granted. But I think he showed today if he stays healthy he’s definitely a Derby horse.”
Carrie Brogden remains the horse’s biggest fan and keeps in contact with Wilkenfeld through Facebook, and he sends her videos of Vyjack’s workouts
Before the Gotham Carrie said, “Al did a tremendous job, and Sohby and Dave kept the faith and did what was right for the horse in managing him and picking the trainer…and here we are. I am keeping all fingers and toes crossed.”
Well, she did a lot more than that. When Vyjack won the Gotham, she admits she lost control and made a spectacle of herself at the Thoroughbred Club, which is located just outside Keeneland Race Course.
“You should have seen me,” she said. “I only made about the biggest buffoon out of myself. I literally was jumping and screaming from one side of the bar into the simulcast room and back. Thank God no one videotaped it. It was ridiculous. Once he crossed the finish line I could not help myself. I have really long thick hair that I usually wear up but for some reason I had taken the hair band out of my hair and was chewing on it, probably from nerves.
“Well, they tell me that I jumped up and down like a jack rabbit and I was yelling and screaming with happiness. I went into the simulcast room that is a very warm place with about 10 tables in it, full of horse people, and was jumping and yelling. I was told I looked like a heavy metal rocker on the stage, flinging my hair around. I stopped and turned to the crowd and blurted out: ‘I bred that horse and this is why I am a breeder!” Cheers and applause resounded all around once everyone knew the reason for my crazy behavior. Needless to say, about 15 minutes later I was as embarrassed as hell for doing that. My phone was just blowing up with texts from well wishers. I’m getting goose bumps all over just thinking about it”
If Carrie gets this excited winning the Gotham, imagine what she’ll be like if Vyjack should win the Kentucky Derby.
She realizes it’s still a long way to Churchill Downs, and all you can do is hope the horse stays sound and healthy. But for now, the thrill and excitement of winning a major Derby prep is more than enough, and there is always that one thought to keep the dream alive.
As the song Run for the Roses goes, “It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance.”
And Carrie keeps thinking,, “If Bernstein had not been full that day, this horse would not have existed. That is fate.”