Entering this week at the Kentucky Derby, Omaha Beach was the front-line favorite at 5-to-1. After trainer Richard Mandella had to sit him due to an entrapped epiglottis, Bob Baffert’s trio of Improbable, Roadster and Game Winner became the talk of the town in Churchill Downs.
That means several bettors are looking for increased value in surprise contenders. One of those horses in Vekoma, who had 15-to-1 odds on Friday according to Horse Racing Nation. Despite the updated 21-to-1 odds by the Kentucky Derby site, Reinier Macatangay is betting on the chestnut colt out of Speightstown (Ky.).
TimeformUS’ Pace Projector believes Vekoma will secure an uncontested lead through a fast pace coded in red, but that is only a testament to his high pace figures from the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) and Blue Grass.
Vekoma prefers to press the pacesetter, and if it gets too hot up front, then he might fall a few lengths back as trainer George Weaver indicated in a recent interview.
“If they go 45 and change, I would imagine he’s not going to be right on that,” Weaver said. “If it’s a normal pace, around 47 or so, he should be close.”
Trainer George Weaver is working with famed jockey Javier Castellano, who is looking for his first Kentucky Derby win in 13 tries on Saturday. Vekoma is also owned by Mike Gatsas, a Broward (Fla.) native. Here’s a quick bio on the team behind the horse.
Getting to Know George Weaver, Javier Castellano & Mike Gatsas
Weaver is from Louisville, having gone to nearby Atherton High School. He got his start as a trainer in 2002 after working as an assistant to Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher. This significance of racing at one of the sports premier events so close to home is not lost on him.
“Even if I wasn’t from here, this would be the ultimate goal for me,” Weaver said to Blood Horse on Wednesday. “But I guess being from here even carries more significance. I think at least 95 percent of people would say the Derby is the race they wanted to win. There’s some other big races on my bucket list, but if I can win this on Saturday, I’ll be very, very happy.”
Per his America’s Best Racing bio: “Weaver earned his first Grade 1 win in 2013 when Lighthouse Bay won the Prioress Stakes. Other top horses trained by Weaver include Isotherm, Falling Sky and Saratoga County.”
In order to drive Vekoma to victory in 2019, he turned to Castellano, a Hall of Fame jockey who claimed victories at the Preakness in 2006 and 2017, as well as the Kentucky Oaks in 2016. The 41-year old from Venezuela started his riding career in 1996 at Santa Rita and La Rinconada racecourses in his home country.
Since moving to the United States shortly after, his resume is impressive (per the Buffalo News).
The Venezuela native’s career victories include eight Breeders’ Cup races, the biggest on Ghostzapper in the Classic in 2004 in one of the most amazing performances of all time. He has two Preakness wins, the ill-fated 2006 race with Bernardini and two years ago with Cloud Computing. He’s won just about every race on the Saratoga Race Course schedule, including six Travers Stakes.
He was enshrined in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2017, the crowning achievement for any rider. He won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey from 2013 through 2016, the annual award for the top jockey of the year.
His best Derby effort in the previous 12 tries occurred last year when he guided Audible to third, just losing out on a second-place finish “by a head bob” to Good Magic.
He has a decent familiarity with Vekoma, as he pressed the pace and drew off to a 3 1/2-length victory over Win Win Win at the Blue Grass Stakes last month.
Gatsas, meanwhile, founded Gatsas Stables and R.A. Hill Stable based off the money he accumulated through a successful payroll service. Now, as his local paper the Sun Sentinel writes, the 66-year old is “living the dream” this week at Churchill Downs.
He bought his first horse about 20 years ago. Several horses he has owned have won important stakes. “But the Kentucky Derby is the dream of every horse owner,” he said. “I always said I would never come to the Derby unless I had a horse in it. As the years went by, I said to myself, ‘Maybe God doesn’t have it in his plans for me.’”
While he’s excited about the possibilities with Vekoma’s position at the No. 6 post (a traditionally more advantageous one than most), he’s just enjoying the experience. The Derby holds a special place in his heart per the Sentinel.
Matthew and most of the extended Gatsas clan are sharing the pageantry and festivities of Derby week with Mike. At least 13 others, including children and grandchildren, will join him in another of the Derby rituals Saturday, the walk with Vekoma from the barn area to the saddling enclosure. “We’re doing everything together.”
He doesn’t expect to be able to keep his composure when the band strikes up “My Old Kentucky Home” as the horses enter the track. “I’ve watched the Derby most years from my living room,” he said, “and I cry every time.”
We’ll find out if those are tears of joy a little after 6:50 p.m. EST on NBC.