David Wilkenfeld has never been afraid to dream big, and Kentucky Derby contender Vyjack is no exception.
Wilkenfeld, who races under Pick Six Racing, said he wanted to find a way to get more involved in the game after cashing several Pick 6 tickets worth six and seven figures over the years.
Business gambles have paid off for him too. With help from his father, who had been in the clothing industry for decades, Wilkenfeld launched PromGirl.com in 1998, selling special occasion dresses online. Now, the company is the largest online seller of such dresses, with sales of $80 million in 2012.
Once he decided to delve into ownership, Wilkenfeld said the Derby was in the back of his mind.
“It's a little presumptuous to think 'Derby'. You hope you'll get a Classic horse when you get a young horse,” he said.
Working with Sobhy Sonbol, former racing manager for Zayat Racing Stables, Wilkenfeld journeyed to the 2012 Fasig-Tipton Midatlantic Two-Year-Olds in Training sale, where Vyjack caught his eye. The colt's movement stood out to him.
“He had a very level, long stride and he was built very big. I thought he had one of the best workouts in the sale,” said Wilkenfeld, who prefers to see a horse with a fast time that moves easily. “A lot of people go to the 2-year-old sales looking for something precocious that can run right away. That really wasn't a concern of mine. I was looking more for a horse that would be longer-term.”
A son of Into Mischief and the Stravinsky mare, Life Happened, Vyjack showed a winning history on his dam's side, and a good balance of sprint and distance winners in his extended family. Wilkenfeld said he favors horses that have the genetics to run at least a mile and hopes that they can stretch out a little longer, since previous Derby winners have similar pedigrees. After purchasing the colt for $100,000, the new owner sent his horse to a relatively new trainer.
Rudy Rodriguez launched his training career just three years ago after almost two decades as a jockey and exercise rider. Rodriguez told Wilkenfeld early on that Vyjack had something special about him.
“After like a month he called me and said 'This is a really nice horse. He's difficult but he has a lot of talent,'” Wilkenfeld recalled. “I said 'Look, we're going to think big with this horse and let him disappoint us, rather than think small.' That's how I approach my business and other things, so I approached the horse the same way.”
A former jockey and exercise rider for Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel as well as Rick Dutrow, Rodriguez was accustomed to dealing with stakes horses and the high-strung personalities that sometimes come along with them.
Despite Vyjack's perfect four-for-four race record, the colt tends to be overwrought and nervous, said Wilkenfeld.
“The great thing about Rudy is that he can get in your horse in the morning. [Rudy and brother Gustavo] worked really closely with the horse in terms of getting him to relax. There was a dramatic change from the Jerome – where he was aggressive and hard to handle – to the Gotham.”
Rodriguez wanted to take the time to teach the horse to relax and rate rather than let him rely on early, aggressive speed that would limit him to sprint races.
In the barn, Rodriguez describes his charge as aggressive but playful, and he's not to be trifled with.
“He wants to be the boss. We're going to let him be the boss if he keeps doing what he's been doing,” Rodriguez said.
As Vyjack takes aim at the Wood Memorial April 6, Wilkenfeld cautioned that his entry into the Derby isn't guaranteed. Vyjack will prep for the Wood without Rodriguez, who is serving a 20-day suspension because two other horses in his stable tested positive last year for the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, Flunixin. But Wilkenfeld said if Vyjack were to make the Derby field, it would be a monumental honor for the team.
“For most horsemen, the Derby is the ultimate dream if you're going to invest in young racehorses. This is it. I don't think there's anything better. There's races with higher purses, but I think if you ask most horse owners what race they would aspire to win, I'd be shocked if too many said any race other than the Kentucky Derby.”
To make that trip with Vyjack, who was named for Wilkenfeld's parents Vivienne and Jack, would add an element of community to the first Saturday in May.
“The whole experience of sharing it with friends and family would be a tremendously rewarding dream. Hopefully it happens,” he said.
For Rodriguez, who said his riding career never took him toward the Derby (“not even close,” he laughed), making an appearance as a third-year trainer would far surpass his expectations.
“They say you've gotta dream big, and if you aren't going to dream big, there's no sense in doing it,” Rodriguez said.
So far, Vyjack's team is content to keep dreaming bigger and bigger.
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