Brothers Mike and Ted Gatsas have owned Thoroughbred racehorses for 21 years, and race days are an excuse to get the entire family together. This year, their children and grandchildren will have the opportunity to join Gatsas Stables at the pinnacle of the sport when Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma enters the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.
“It's pretty surreal at this point,” said Matthew Gatsas, racing manager and second generation Gatsas. “We've had a lot of nice horses, we've been to the Breeders' Cup, but we've never had a horse hit the mark on the Derby trail.
“We had a joke going into the (Blue Grass) weekend. We said, 'If anyone wakes us up from this dream, we're not going to be happy!'”
The elder Gatsas brothers met partner Randy Hill at Saratoga, where their boxes were just a few rows apart. The trio began partnering on horses four years ago, and Hill invited the Gatsas brothers to join him with the chestnut colt after purchasing him for $135,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sale.
Vekoma first began to ignite their imaginations as a 2-year-old in 2018.
The George Weaver-trained son of Candy Ride broke his maiden at Belmont Park in late September, covering six furlongs in a sharp 1:08.93. The colt made his next start in the G3 Nashua on the first weekend in November, winning the one-mile contest by 1 ¾ lengths.
Sent off as the second choice in the G2 Fountain of Youth, Vekoma was perhaps a bit short for his first start of 2019. Rating behind the pacesetters, Manny Franco sent the colt toward the front around the turn but came up 2 ¾ lengths short on the wire, finishing third.
Heading into the Blue Grass, Matthew Gatsas said the family's primary concern was whether the colt would like the 1 1/8-mile distance after his third-place finish in his first start around two turns.
“We felt like we had the best horse in the race,” he said. “We were very confident in our colt, but of course the distance was a question mark, and whether he could work out a trip.”
Under Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano, Vekoma again rated off the pacesetter but this time he drew off in the stretch to win by 3 ½ lengths.
“This horse has done nothing wrong,” said Gatsas. “We have the utmost confidence in him. He has a great mind, and we fell in love with him from the very beginning.”
Gatsas grew up watching his father and uncle with the horses and going to the track on the weekends with the family. Their first two horses both became Grade 2 winners, and late in Matthew Gatsas' college years the family was blessed with a gelding named Gander. The New York-bred won a Grade 2 and placed in multiple Grade 1 races, even taking the family to the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2000 and 2001. At his retirement, Gander had collected over $1.8 million in purses.
Working in the family's payroll company, Gatsas helped launch a syndicate ownership group named Sovereign Stable. Under that banner, the family celebrated a Grade 1 win in the Alcibiades with the filly Negligee, as well as total stable earnings of over $4 million from 2002 through 2018.
In the past four years, Gatsas has emphasized the family stable banner once again as his father began to make the transition into retirement. The fortuitous meetings with Hill have born fruit in the form of over $1 million in earnings since 2016, and the sport continues to be a family affair.
“It's a lot of fun as a family-type thing,” said Gatsas. “My kids are into it, my wife, my sister, her family. We'll all be there on the first Saturday in May if he stays healthy. It's always been a family thing for us, so it's a lot of fun.”
“They're great, great people,” trainer George Weaver said. “They're always understanding; they just love the game and they let you do your job. We've become good friends with them, and it's always fun to have a good colt. I'm just happy for them. They've been involved in the game for quite a few years, and they deserve one.”
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