Vekoma Scores Front-Running Victory In Runhappy Met Mile

Under Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano, R.A. Hill Stable and Gatsas Stables’ Vekoma scored a front-running 1 1/4-length victory in Saturday’s Grade 1 Runhappy Met Mile Handicap at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., holding off late charges from Network Effect and Code of Honor and earning an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in the Win and You’re In Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race.

Trained by George Weaver, Vekoma –  4-year-old colt by Candy Ride out of G1 Humana Distaff winner Mona de Momma, by Speightstown – covered one mile on a fast track in 1:32.88 after setting fractions of :22.73, :45.87 and 1:09.57.

Network Effect, who altered course in the stretch after lacking room along the rail, finished second by a half-length. Code of Honor closed on the outside for third, with Warrior’s Charge a neck back in fourth and McKinzie fifth in the field of eight older runners.

Vekoma carried 123 pounds, two less than high-weight McKinzie. Vekoma and McKinzie were both 9-5 in the betting, with McKinzie the narrow favorite.

Breaking on top, Vekoma was under some pressure throughout by Warrior’s Charge, with Network Effect getting the rail trip in third. Endorsed and McKinzie loomed up on the outside of those two into the far turn, but neither could mount a serious challenge. Code of Honor trailed early and began his rally at the quarter pole but was too late.

“They didn’t go as fast up front as I thought they would; 23 and 45 for these horses is slow,” said John Velazquez, who rode Code of Honor. “The winner is a nice horse but it was a little too short for (Code of Honor).”

Castellano said he was surprised to find himself on the lead.

“You never know in this game,” Castellano said. “Sometimes you handicap the race and then you have to throw it out when you break out of the gate. I made a decision and used my best judgement and I think it paid off today. The way I handicapped the race, I thought I would sit behind the two outside horses [Mr. Freeze, No. 7; and Warrior’s Charge, No. 8] and then go around them and get it done. But he broke so well out of the gate, I didn’t want to take away anything that comes easy. I dictated the pace in a nice way and he took it from there.

“They came after me at the three-eighths pole, but he’s such a great horse and such an honest horse. The further he went the stronger he got.”

The win in the $500,000 Runhappy Met Mile was the sixth in eight starts for Vekoma, winner of the G3 Nashua at 2 in 2018, the G2 Blue Grass Stakes in 2019 and then 13th in the G1 Kentucky Derby. Given a lengthy rest by Weaver after the Derby, Vekoma came back in March to win the Sir Shackleton Stakes at Gulfstream, then came from just off the pace to win the G1 Carter Handicap on June 6. Network Effect finished second that day, too.

 “I was happy with our trip around the backside,” said Weaver. “I knew we had natural speed, and no one really went with us so I was happy with the fact that he was there. At the quarter pole, it seemed like all comers were coming and I thought ‘Man, does he have anything left in the tank or not?’. When they got to the eighth pole and I saw him rebreak and keep going, I got excited. It was fun.

“I actually did think he could be on the lead. I thought we had the most natural speed of the horses in the race. I knew the outside horses liked to show speed, but at the end of the day I thought if we broke well, they might just be caught chasing. When I talked to Javier in the paddock, he was non-committal, and I said the whole time that I know Javier understands this horse and feels what he can and can’t do, and I left it in his hands. I felt in the paddock that Javier was comfortable to let the speed go, but he broke well and didn’t want to give it away.

“As the race unfolded it looked like a lot of horses were trying to make a run and come at us. At the quarter pole, for a brief moment, I didn’t know if he had any horse in the tank or not, but at the eighth pole I saw him re-break and I was so proud of him.

“We’re going to nominate to the Whitney for sure,” Weaver added, “but he’s run two huge races back-to-back. The most likely scenario, to me, is that he would come back in a race like the Forego. We want to plot a campaign to get us to the Breeders’ Cup, so we’ll take a look at the calendar and go from there.”

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