Derby Hopefuls feature the horses I view as the best contenders leading up to the Kentucky Derby. Each horse spotlighted in a Derby Hopeful will join the 2013 PTG Derby Hopeful roster, found on the right side of the blog. Horses will be listed in an order that corresponds to how highly I think of them, with the horse I think most highly of ranking at the top. A horse featured in a Derby Hopeful may be taken off the roster if its performances after its article are published are not up to par or if that horse is taken off the Triple Crown trail, though those articles will remain on my blog.
Vyjack was never intended to exist. Those words are harsh, but Vyjack is a result of a last-minute change of plans. His breeders, Sandy Willwerth and Carrie and Craig Brogden of Machmer Hall Farm, had a live foal breeding contract to Bernstein and planned to breed an unraced daughter of Stravinsky, Life Happened, to the son of Storm Cat. But on the day Life Happened was ready to breed to Bernstein, the stallion was booked full. In order to not miss Life Happened’s cycle, last-minute plans were made to breed the mare to freshman sire Into Mischief.
The result was Vyjack, who was gelded as a two-year-old after having shown unacceptable studdish behavior. Vyjack quickly began to show that it was a good thing he did exist, even if he was never intended to. Making his racing debut in November of 2012 in a six and one-half-furlong maiden special weight at Aqueduct, Vyjack pressed the pace before battling the future black-type-winning Clawback down the stretch before drawing away in the late stages to win by almost two lengths at nearly 18-1 odds. Interestingly, eventual Florida Derby (GI) victor and fellow Kentucky Derby (GI) contender, Orb, finished fourth behind Vyjack.
Facing just three others over a sloppy track in his stakes debut, the Traskwood Stakes, Vyjack rated in third in the early stages of the seven-furlong event before gradually inching his way into second as the field entered the far turn. Putting his long, effortless strides to use, Vyjack commandingly took the lead as the horses reached the end of the curve, kicking clear with ease to score by 5 ¾ lengths.
Taking on graded stakes company for the first time in his sophomore debut, the Jerome Stakes (GII), Vyjack would also be going two turns for the first time in his career, as the race was contested at a mile and seventy yards over Aqueduct’s inner track. Although he initially sat behind the pacesetters, Vyjack became the leader shortly after the field reached the backstretch. Strongly pressured by rivals around the final bend, Vyjack was passed by longshot Siete de Oros but drew even with that opponent in the homestretch, dueling with him down the straightaway to gamely prevail by a head.
Vyjack would win his succeeding start, the mile and one-sixteenth Gotham Stakes (GIII), in a much easier manner. Competing against ten adversaries, the bay gelding broke somewhat slowly and rather than finding a position near the pace like he had in his previous races, Vyjack was maneuvered to near the rear of the field, racing wide and several lengths off the frontrunners around the clubhouse turn.
Remaining a wealth of lengths off the pace down the backstretch, Vyjack slowly picked up the pace as the field entered the far turn. As the horses approached the quarter pole, the bay gelding accelerated impressively, swinging wide to go around rivals. He seemed to find a new gear once he changed leads in the homestretch, soaring on the outside as he passed competitors as if they were standing still, crossing the wire 2 ¼ lengths ahead.
Vyjack put his undefeated record on the line in the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI), in which he would not only extend to nine furlongs, but would also have to contest against perhaps the most glorified horse on the Derby trail, the undefeated Verrazano. Leaving the fifth gate in good order, Vyjack quickly joined the front-running unit, settling just behind the leaders as the field raced into the first turn.
Vyjack raced a handful of lengths off the leader as the field reached the backstretch, appearing comfortable while galloping to the outside of rivals. As the horses entered the final curve, Vyjack began to speed up the tempo, looming large on the outside and gaining ground on Verrazano, who had assumed the lead at the half-mile marker. Going wide around the bend, Vyjack set his sights on Verrazano, who would prove to be a very tough rival in the stretch. With all his might, Vyjack strove to surpass the undefeated Todd Pletcher trainee and although he gave Verrazano the toughest test he had yet to face, he could not keep up in the final stages and was narrowly edged out by Normandy Invasion to finish third.
This gelding is as hard-trying as they come and though he is undoubtedly talented, he will have to run the race of his life to win the Derby. His racing endeavors easily outshine his pedigree, which provides much worry regarding this gelding’s ability to be victorious at classic distances. Vyjack is a member of his unintended sire, Into Mischief’s, first crop. Into Mischief was a grade one-winning juvenile, taking the mile and one-sixteenth CashCall Futurity (GI), but was kept out of the Derby due to injury and only raced three times – each start at seven furlongs – as a sophomore. Into Mischief has proven himself in the breeding shed with his first crop, as he is also the sire of grade one-winning Derby contender Goldencents and the multiple black-type-winning filly Sittin at the Bar.
The sire of Into Mischief, Harlan’s Holiday, won at nine furlongs on four occasions, but after triumphs in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes (GI), the son of the grade one-winning sprinter Harlan finished seventh in the Run for the Roses. However, he did place in several ten-furlong races, including runner-up efforts in the Dubai World Cup (GI) and Hollywood Gold Cup (GI). As a sire, Harlan’s Holiday has predominantly flourished with sprinters and milers, though he has sired the likes of Willcox Inn – winner of the American Derby (GII, 9.5F) – and Denis of Cork – runner-up in the Belmont Stakes (GI, 12F) and third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby.
Stemming from a strong Maryland-bred female family, Vyjack’s unraced dam, Life Happened, has also produced the multiple graded stakes-placed Prime Cut – who is actually sired by Bernstein. Still currently racing, Prime Cut has won up to about a mile and one-sixteenth and has placed three times at a mile and one-eighth. He finished eleventh of twelve in the 2011 Belmont.
Life Happened is a daughter of the black-type-placed Round It Off, who is also the dam of the graded stakes-winning Disco Rico, a champion sprinter in Maryland. Vyjack’s third dam, Capp It Off, won several black-type races and produced Miss Slewpy, a multiple graded stakes winner who won at nine furlongs on six occasions and was triumphant in the Ladies Handicap (GII), contested at a mile and one-quarter.
Maryland royalty is present in Vyjack’s tail female line: his fourth dam, Turn Capp, was Maryland Broodmare of the Year in 1996, having produced an abundance of black-type horses: Capp Ice, Capp it Off, Capp the Power, Say Capp, and Twilight Prince. Vyjack is thus a direct descendant of the Reine de Course mare, Chelandry, who is the foundation mare of family 1-n. Other direct descendants of this outstanding racemare and broodmare include Americain – who won the Melbourne Cup (GI) at 3,200 meters (nearly 16 furlongs), Bodemeister – runner-up in last year’s Derby, and Swale – the ill-fated 1984 Derby and Belmont champion.
Vyjack’s sixth dam, Noble Nurse, is sired by Count Fleet – winner of the 1943 Triple Crown that captured the Belmont by 25 lengths – and is out of a daughter of 1937 Triple Crown champion War Admiral – a son of the great Man O’ War. Her granddam is a daughter of Sir Gallahad, sire of a trifecta of Derby winners, including 1930 Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox.
Vyjack’s broodmare sire, Stravinsky, was a brilliant sprinter in Great Britain, but is a son of Nureyev – sire of champion Theatrical, who won several long distance turf races – and the grade one-winning mare Fire the Groom, who won up to a mile and three-sixteenths – the distance of the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes (GI). Fire the Groom is a daughter of Blushing Groom, one of the finest sires and broodmare sires of the breed. A winner of several championship honors as both racehorse and sire, Blushing Groom excelled at a mile but sired many distance horses, including Nashwan, Rainbow Quest, and Runaway Groom – all of which were grade/group one victors at ten furlongs or more. But perhaps Blushing Groom’s greatest success came as a broodmare sire, as he is the sire of the dams of a wealth of grade/group one winners, including those that have won at ten furlongs or beyond: Flute, Haafhd, and Mezzo Soprano.
Although stamina influences can be found in Vyjack’s bloodlines, you have to search diligently to find them and they are greatly overshadowed by forces of speed. To add to the doubts surrounding Vyjack is his ability to take to Churchill Down’s surface, as he has only competed at Aqueduct. Fortunately, the gelding will have approximately two weeks to adapt to the dirt beneath the twin spires.
Despite having many circumstances stacked against him, Vyjack does bring many advantages to the Derby. The gelding is a very versatile runner, as he can set the pace, press the pace, settle just off the pace, or close from far back. This versatility should serve as a benefit for Vyjack in the Run for the Roses. Furthermore, he possesses not only pure talent, but an outstanding determination to win. Regardless of how great Vyjack’s chances are at Derby glory, it’s hard not to cheer for a horse with a story like his. I encourage you to read his story in the words of the great turf writer Steve Haskin here.