Twenty owners will watch their horses run in the Kentucky Derby Saturday. Just one will know what it feels like to win. And that’s the beauty of the country’s most important Thoroughbred race.
“Anyone that ever owned a racehorse, you ask them a race they want to win and that’s the one they would mention,” said David Wilkenfeld, who owns Derby entrant Vyjack. “There are bigger money races, but that’s the pinnacle of American racing. It’s the race. Anyone who hears you own a horse, you hear ‘Ever run in the Derby?’ You could tell them you won the Breeders’ Cup and they’d be like ‘What?’ It’s going to be a great day. I’ll have a lot of friends and family there. It’s exciting to think about.”
Wilkenfeld said that two weeks ago. The feeling will only increase up to Saturday, and rightly so. The man got into racing as a teenager. He lived near Belmont Park and Aqueduct, went to the track with his friends and cashed a ticket on a 40-1 shot.
“You know how it is; you go once and you’re like ‘Wow,’ ” he said. “Of course, they always make sure you win the first time you go . . . I’ve been a fan a long time. You never really think you could be in this position, but I’m enjoying it all.”
Wilkenfeld, who owns promgirl.com and simplydresses.com, put his teenage betting acumen to good use. He’s a gambler, says so matter of factly. He’s hit big tickets, including a $3.3 million pick six. They don’t compare to winning races with Vyjack, won’t even touch the Derby experience. The bettor became an owner when he bought Vyjack about a year ago at Fasig-Tipton’s May 2-year-olds in training sale. The bay son of Into Mischief made a short list created by Wilkenfeld and his friend Sobhy Sonbol (former racing manager for Zayat Stable) based on pedigree and conformation. They watched the workouts on the 5-furlong track at Timonium in suburban Baltimore, and liked what they saw. The bidding stopped at $100,000 and Wilkenfeld was an owner. Fittingly, he signed the ticket Pick Six Racing LLC and the gambler was an owner.
“We had about 20 horses vetted, got down to around five or six and he was our number one pick,” Wilkenfeld said. “He went early in the sale and he was the one I really wanted. He worked three-eighths beautifully. I wasn’t looking for a horse that had to run early or was super-precocious. He had a lot of sprint in his family but he didn’t look like a sprinter.”
After the sale, Vyjack went to Bruce Jackson at Fair Hill Equine Therapy Center for some down time, recovery and early training. The sales can wear on 2-year-olds, so a break helps set up their racing careers. Vyjack made himself right at home, and then some – proving to be such a handful Jackson recommended making the colt a gelding.
“We sent him to Bruce and he was kind of studdish, which probably worked in our favor,” said Wilkenfeld. “The horse didn’t have a lot of mileage on him anyway, and then they had trouble getting him to the track and things here.”
Vyjack didn’t race until November of last year – winning a maiden race at Aqueduct (over Orb among others), and adding stakes triumphs in the Traskwood, Jerome and Gotham (all at Aqueduct). After finishing third behind Verrazano in the Wood Memorial, the Kentucky-bred came back to Fair Hill. Jackson was happy to see him and put Vyjack through the facility’s hyperbaric chamber (to help with some respiratory issues) and cold salt-water spa.
“It’s why we built the place, it’s for all horses but to have people call you to help with horses like this is great,” he said of the therapy center, which occupies a sprawling barn in a corner of the 300-acre Fair Hill Training Center. “It’s really rewarding, and great to see them go on and do well at the races. This is something that can really help a horse. They talk about the Triple Crown being a grueling trail, but it’s a grueling trail getting there too.”