Fifteen minutes after another gallop on another weekday, Vyjack groaned and grumbled, hunkered himself into the sand of a round pen and rolled - looking every bit like a happy Labrador Retriever in a yard on a sunny day. Only he's no dog.
The Kentucky Derby contender counts four wins from five starts on his career docket, including three stakes scores at Aqueduct. Based at the New York track all winter, the bay gelding closed his Derby preps with a third in the Wood Memorial April 6, but is using Fair Hill Training Center for the finishing touches. Thursday, he galloped, walked the shed, drank heartily from a bucket with trainer Rudy Rodriguez still aboard, then went for that round pen.
"He doesn't get to do anything like this at home," Rodriguez said. "He's happy and it's very good for him. He's so calm here. He can be aggressive in the barn, but not here."
Rodriguez plans to work the son of Into Mischief Friday morning before heading to Churchill Downs and the Derby. The move to Fair Hill came at the suggestion of owner David Wilkenfeld for a combination of reasons - the two racetracks, the health options available at the on-site equine therapy center, the change of scenery. Vyjack was at Fair Hill as a 2-year-old, and got past some early training issues there.
After seeing the place, experiencing it, Rodriguez was happy with the relocation.
"He's run five times, he's been at the track for a while without a break," he said. "This is a nice, amazing place for a horse. He can relax and work at the same time. This is my first time here, it's where I want to live. Everything looks like it's working. He's happy, that's the main thing - we want to make sure he's happy and comfortable."
Vyjack gallops in a hackamore, a bitless yet powerful bridle normally reserved for western horses, lead ponies and the occasional rammy racehorse. Instead of pulling on a horse's mouth for control, the hackamore works by affecting pressure points on a horse's face. Riders try not to pull too hard or too often, but the device can convince an otherwise strong horse to rate.
Vyjack trained in a normal bit early on, but was so strong after his career debut - an Aqueduct maiden win over fellow Derby contender Orb among others - that Rodriguez tried the hackamore. Vyjack has been easy to gallop ever since.
"He got very, very tough and we got some cuts in his mouth because he wanted to run off," Rodriguez said. "After the first race, he was a lot more aggressive than you want to see him. We put the hackamore on him and he's been very good. He's very comfortable, I just hold the jaw up - sometimes, if you take too much hold they start having breathing problems."
Vyjack will breeze Friday (moved up from Saturday because of some rain in the forecast) in a normal bit/bridle combination, but the new equipment seems to help - as does a new attitude. On his first stay at Fair Hill, after Wilkenfeld bought Vyjack at Fasig-Tipton Midlantic's 2-year-old sale last year, Vyjack was anything but well-behaved.
"He was very reluctant to train, extremely studdish, didn't want any parts of doing his job," said Bruce Jackson, head of the Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center. "After we gelded him, we trained him for a month out in the fields, not anywhere near the racetracks. We kept him going, but we tried to remove all those bad habits as best we could. It seemed to do the trick."
Nearly a year later, Jackson likes what he sees. Vyjack is more mature, bigger, stronger. His stay has included a course of treatment in the hyperbaric chamber to clear up some mucous after the Wood, plus daily sessions in the cold saltwater spa.
Those options, plus the ability to stay in training, made Wilkenfeld consider a return to Maryland with his Derby contender.
"I thought it would be a perfect spot," he said. "He went through a tough winter at Aqueduct, Bruce has been a supporter all along so it's good to have the horse with someone you know. He's been following the horse and I feel like he's been part of the team."