DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – They have names like Boomerang and Big Loop, Comet and Corkscrew, Tornado and Velocity. The road to the Kentucky Derby has so many twists and turns, it’s like a roller-coaster ride. So, perhaps the most-appropriate horse for this time of the year is one named for the manufacturer of roller coasters bearing those monikers.
Vekoma is a company based in The Netherlands that makes roller coasters installed at amusement parks the world over. Its namesake, a 3-year-old colt whose clever name was inspired by his sire, Candy Ride, is located in a far more tranquil setting, here at Palm Beach Downs, a training center about 41 miles northwest of Gulfstream Park where trainer George Weaver is based for the winter.
Exiting the northernmost barn on the property from a stall that faces north – toward Kentucky – Vekoma has trained daily at Palm Beach the past two months, with six works beginning on Jan. 12 through last Sunday. He’s locked into the car, chugging up, up, up. He’s about to head over that spot at the top of the rise and careen on that wild, crazy, twisting, looping, screaming journey, beginning on Saturday in the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream.
“We’ve done as much as we can with him in the morning. It’s time to get over there and run and get his 3-year-old campaign started,” Weaver said on a gorgeous Wednesday morning while sitting on a picnic table adjacent to the track at Palm Beach. “He’s had a nice series of works. But it’s a tough race, two turns off the bench.”
Vekoma showed plenty of promise last year in two starts. He defeated maidens at Belmont Park going six furlongs in his debut, then five weeks later won the Grade 3 Nashua at Aqueduct, a one-turn mile, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 97. He was considered for the Remsen but instead was given a break to prepare for what potentially lays ahead.
“The idea was to give the colt a chance to get to the Derby,” said Weaver, who trains Vekoma for Randy Hill and Matt Gatsas. “We thought the time would do him well. We didn’t want to risk burning him out.”
Vekoma is not an imposing specimen. Considering his chestnut color, small star, and his sire, he bears a striking resemblance physically to what Gun Runner looked like in the spring of his 3-year-old year. Gun Runner was third in the 2016 Derby, and went on to be the 2017 Horse of the Year.
“He’s medium-sized, well balanced,” Weaver said, adding that those qualities are what attracted his attention when he and Steve Venosa – who often pinhooks his yearling buys – picked out Vekoma for Hill when he was acquired at Keeneland in September 2017 for $135,000.
“I bounce ideas off of Steve, and he gives the stamp of approval,” Weaver said. “He looked athletic to me. I thought he moved well.”
Weaver, 48, has been training on his own since 2003, but he’s been involved in the game for more than three decades. He first got interested as a youth growing up in Louisville, Ky., the son of parents who were fans of the sport but had no other connection.
“I like animals, I like horses,” Weaver said.
After briefly working one summer at a farm and deciding he much preferred the action at the racetrack, Weaver got his first job working for trainer John Hennig, whose son Mark and son-in-law Kiaran McLaughlin already were working for D. Wayne Lukas.
“I told him I didn’t just want to hot walk. I wanted to learn,” Weaver said. “He told me when the opportunity presented itself, he’d feed me into Wayne’s organization. It happened a lot sooner than I thought it would.”
Weaver initially worked under Lukas’s son, Jeff, and Jeff’s top assistant at the time, Todd Pletcher. After Pletcher went out on his own, Weaver eventually worked as an assistant for Pletcher before deciding he needed to go out on his own as well. Weaver’s biggest victory came in the 2005 Dubai Golden Shaheen with Saratoga County.
While working for Pletcher, Weaver met his wife, the former Cindy Hutton, who is the exercise rider for Vekoma. “She’s a big part of everything we do,” Weaver said. They have one child, a son, Ben, who is 16.
Now, at Palm Beach – a private training facility with just six barns – Weaver and Pletcher are neighbors. And on Saturday, among those Weaver will face in the Fountain of Youth is the Mark Hennig trainee Bourbon War.
“Wayne is a great horse trainer and was a great coach for us,” Weaver said. “We’re all proud that we were part of his organization. It’s kind of a fraternity.”
Lukas has won the Derby four times. Pletcher twice. That’s another fraternity Weaver would surely like to join. Wouldn’t that be an exhilarating ride?
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.
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