Division Rankings: Vekoma ready to strut

Division Rankings: Vekoma ready to strut
Photo: Courtesy Churchill Downs

In the days leading up to this weekend’s Grade 1 Met Mile, one would think that race boiled down to two horses, McKinzie and Code of Honor. After all, that is what most of the race headlines and previews would have you believe.

Of course, McKinzie and Code of Honor are the names that many fans recognize; together they have won six Grade 1 events from a combined 27 starts. They are popular horses who have large fan bases.

Now a 5-year-old, McKinzie was second in this event last year to Mitole and has won a Grade 1 event at age 2, 3, and 4. Code of Honor, last year’s Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner, won his 4-year-old debut early last month.

But when analyzing this race purely off what has been seen so far in 2020, one horse clearly stands out above those two aforementioned stars: Vekoma.

A convincing winner of the Blue Grass (G2) last year, Vekoma headed to the sidelines for nearly 11 months following an unplaced effort in the Kentucky Derby. After a well-deserved break of almost 11 months in which he was given time to mature emotionally and physically by trainer George Weaver, Vekoma returned with a 3 3/4-length win in the 7-furlong Sir Shackleton Stakes at Gulfstream Park in late March.

But it was his last race that had many buzzing about this chestnut son of Candy Ride. Facing a good field in the 7-furlong Carter Handicap (G1) at Belmont on June 6, Vekoma showed his affinity for middle distances with a sparkling 7 1/4-length win. It wasn’t just how he won, it was how fast he ran and how fast he has run in both of his starts since cutting back to two turns. In short, Vekoma has matured greatly at age 4 and has been sensational so far in 2020.

In contrast, McKinzie started his season off with a disastrous 11th place finish in the Saudi Cup but returned last out with a win in the Triple Bend (G2) at Santa Anita. I am going to go out on a limb here and write that I don’t believe this is the same McKinzie we have seen in past seasons. He may have lost a step or two. His Triple Bend win was among the slowest races he has ever run speed-figure-wise, and that is alarming to me. He is a very vulnerable favorite in the Met Mile.

Code of Honor returned nicely in the Westchester last month, but this race will be the toughest test that Code of Honor has ever had. He will have to run a career top and then some. He just hasn’t shown me in any of his races that he can pull this off. I am skeptical of his chances in this race as well.

Call me crazy, but I would not be surprised to see one or both of these favorites off the board.

As it stands now, Vekoma is slated to be the third betting choice, quite an overlay, if you ask me. I agree with owner Matt Gatsas' assessment of Vekoma when he said, “I don’t know if there’s a horse in the country that can beat Vekoma at his game”

George Weaver has been up front with his plans for Vekoma in 2020: Keep him around one turn and shoot for an Eclipse. So far the plan has worked to perfection.

With that, here's a look at this week's Division Rankings.

Older Dirt Males

1.  
Maximum Security - Still holds the top but he will need to start soon. Although he is the best based off of what we have seen from him thus far, he hasn't run since February. He has finished behind only one rival in 10 career starts. Don't blame the horse for any wrongdoings by his former trainer. Look for him to potentially return in the July 18 San Diego Handicap (G2) at Del Mar.

2.  Tom's d'Etat – Scorched the field in the Stephen Foster (G2) last weekend for his fourth straight win going back to 2019. It's how he is winning that is opening some eyes as he has been extremely fast speed figure wise and is a serious Horse of the Year contender. He does not take over the No. 1 spot because these rankings are about 2020, and the Foster was his first graded stakes win.

3.  By My Standards – Was no match for Tom's d'Etat in the Stephen Foster but was easily the best of the rest. He started his season with a win in an optional claimer and then won the New Orleans Classic and Oaklawn Handicap, both Grade 2. 

4.  Code of Honor – Finally made his 2020 debut in the Westchester (G3) at Belmont, where he wore down Endorsed to win by a half-length. He will go next in what is shaping up as another strong renewal of the Met Mile.

5.  Mucho Gusto – Much improved from last season, he took an eventful Saudi Cup trip. He likely would have finished third instead of fourth had jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. not been so concerned with Maximum Security for the entirety of the race. With COVID-19 leading to cancellation of the Dubai World Cup (G1), his more recent plans were dashed. Needs to run soon or will drop even more.

Next 5: Improbable, Warrior's Charge, Mr. Freeze, Tacitus, Owendale.  

Older Dirt Females

1.  
Midnight Bisou – Romped in the Fleur De Lis (G2) last weekend for her first win of 2020. The Saudi Cup runner-up to Maximum Security, she has never finished off the board in 20 starts and really has no distaffer close to her equal. Her career arc is now approaching the handful of past greats who have competed in the last 30 years.

2.  Ce Ce  No excuses in the Santa Maria (G2) last out at Santa Anita, where she checked in a flat third. Still, with two Grade 1 wins already in 2020, she easily holds on to this spot.

3.  Ollie's Candy - You can throw a blanket over the next three or four here, but I am going to stick with Ollie's Candy for now even though she was beat last out in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps. She attended a very fast pace and gets extra credit for shipping across the country from her California home base to get beat a nose and a neck. 

4.  Point of Honor - She hasn't won yet this season, but she ran another big race when coming from behind in the Ogden Phipps (G1) to get beat a nose. The feeling here is that when she gets back to 9 furlongs she will be very tough to beat.

5.  Fighting Mad - Won the Santa Maria (G2) in impressive fashion, defeating Ce Ce. Prior to that was off the board in the Desert Stormer Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita. We will find out in her next start if she is a contender in this division.

Next 5: Street Band, She's a Julie, Dunbar Road, Monomoy Girl, Guarana.

3-Year-Old-Males

1.  Tiz the Law – Easily defeated an uninspiring Belmont field that was suspect at best. With several high-profile rivals out with injuries, I would expect him to hold down this sport for the entire summer. The Travers on Aug. 8 is his next scheduled start.

2.  Honor A. P. – The Santa Anita Derby winner appears headed to the ungraded Shared Belief Stakes run at a distance of 1 1/16 on Aug. 1. I guess he heads to this spot because of the 50 points being awarded to the winner of this "Road to the Derby" points race. Not a big fan of this decision, and he will skip major races such as the Haskell and Travers.

3.  Authentic – Suffered his first loss when a runner-up in the Santa Anita Derby but he drops only one spot because, quite frankly, everything went wrong for him. He broke awkwardly, losing ground at the start; was wide around the first turn; and battled with two others for the lead throughout. Hanging in there for the place spot, he should move forward off this and into his next start, the Haskell (G1) on July 18 at Monmouth Park.

4.  King Guillermo - Impressed me with his runner-up finish in the Arkansas Derby behind Nadal, showing everyone that his 49-1 upset win in his previous start, the Tampa Bay Derby (G2), was no fluke. Apparently his connections have decided to sit him now for 126 days and train up to the Kentucky Derby. It's a questionable decision at best, in my opinion.

5.  Dr Post - From unranked to No. 5. That's what happens when you finish runner-up in the Belmont and several other high-profile horses in this division are riddled with injuries. After breaking his maiden in March, he won the listed Unbridled Stakes prior to his Belmont run.

Next 5: Maxfield, Charlatan, Max Player, Sole Volante, Basin.

3-Year-Old-Females

1.  
Swiss Skydiver – Her connections are considering the Blue Grass (G2) against males on July 11 for her next start. She widened her lead in this division in her last start, the Santa Anita Oaks (G2), where she romped to her third straight graded stakes score. 

2.  Gamine - Impressive winner of the Acorn by over 18 lengths for her first stakes win. She likely will appear again during the Saratoga meet, and I get the sense that she will be best around one turn. Still awaiting resolution from her failed post-race drug test in May at Oaklawn.

3.  Donna Veloce – Big things were expected this year from the daughter of Uncle Mo, and she certainly delivered in her first start of 2020, winning the Santa Ysabel (G3). She recently returned to trainer Simon Callaghan’s stable at Santa Anita after a springtime rest at a farm in Florida and remains a candidate for the Kentucky Oaks on Sept. 4 at Churchill Downs.


4.  
Venetian Harbor – The runaway Las Virgenes (G2) winner tried her best in the Fantasy but was simply second best, some 10 lengths clear of third place. Skipped the Acorn (G1) and will point to the Saratoga meet.

5.  Tonalist's Shape – Rebounded from her loss to Swiss Skydiver in the Gulfstream Park Oaks with a nice win in Gulfstream's Hollywood Wildcat Stakes. She now has three stakes wins on the season and could run next in the Ashland at Keeneland on July 11.

Next 5: Finite, Bonny South, Shedaresthedevil, Sharing, Kimari. 

Turf Males

1.  
United - Takes over this No. 1 spot after his nose win in the Whittingham Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita. Also the winner of the San Marcos to get his 2020 season underway, he's 2-for-2 on the year.

2.  Factor This - Made it three straight graded stakes wins, all in wire-to-wire fashion, with his narrow win in the Wise Dan (G2) at Churchill Downs. This 5-year-old is in the best form of his career and an Eclipse contender for trainer Brad Cox.

3.  Zulu Alpha - On the sidelines for a brief freshening, the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) and Mac Diarmida Stakes (G2) winner tasted his first defeat of the season last out in the Pan American (G2) at Gulfstream when runner-up to Bemma's Boy. Could get the chance to reclaim the No. 1 spot in his next expected start in the Elkhorn (G2) at Keeneland, where United may also be in the gate.

4.  Raging Bull – Ranked several times last season based off multiple graded stakes placings, he broke through in a big way with a facile win in the Shoemaker Mile (G1) at Santa Anita.

5.  Arklow - Finally made his second start of the year in the Louisville Stakes (G3) at Churchill Downs but his closing kick came a head short when he was runner-up to Admission Office. 

Next 5: Next Shares, Admission Office, Instilled Regard, Bemma's Boy, Without Parole.

Turf Females

1.  Mean Mary – Took it to a new level last weekend when she romped in the New York Stakes (G2). With three graded stakes wins now on the season, previously winning Le Prevoyante Stakes (G3) and Orchid Stakes (G3), she takes over the top spot. Like Starship Jubilee, she is a surprise contender in this division. 

2.  Starship Jubilee – Canada's 2019 Horse of the Year scratched out of the Nassau Stakes (G2) last weekend at Woodbine. 3-for-3 this season, she has captured two graded stakes.

3.  Newspaperofrecord - Has rebounded very nicely from a disappointing 3-year-old season to take her first two races in 2020, both graded stakes. Her win in the Just a Game (G1) last weekend came at the expense of the defending champ of this division, Uni.

4.  Rushing Fall – Looked really good in her seasonal debut when defeating Got Stormy, among others, in the Beaugay Stakes (G3) at Belmont. Maybe she can finally contend for an Eclipse this season. The Jenny Wiley (G1) runs at Keeneland on July 11 

5.  Jolie Olimpica – Rebounded nicely from her only career loss to Gamely winner Keeper Ofthe Stars to win the Monrovia (G2) at Santa Anita. Also won the Las Cienegas Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita earlier this year. She will likely try and stretch out again for her next start.

Next 5: Keeper Ofthe Stars, Toinette, Uni, Got Stormy, Secret Message.


Male Sprinters

1.  Vekoma 
- 2-for-2 this season, his connections will keep him around one turn to try to win the Eclipse in this division. Would cement his spot here at the top with a win this weekend in the Met Mile, where he is quite an overlay as the likely third wagering choice.

2.  Whitmore - No. 2 right now, but he will have plenty of chances to reclaim the No.1 spot he held a few weeks ago. He won the Count Fleet Sprint (G3) at Oaklawn in his last start. With two wins in three starts, he shows no signs of slowing down at age 7.

3.  McKinzie – Rebounded from his poor Saudi Cup showing to post a win in the Triple Bend (G2) at Santa Anita. The problem with this performance was that it was much slower speed-figure-wise than both Vekoma and Volatile ran the same weekend. I am not convinced he is the same horse we saw at times last season, but he can prove me wrong this weekend in the Met Mile.

4.  Volatile - Jumps all the way to No. 4 here after just his first stakes start, but what a stakes start it was. Although he was assigned "only" a 111 Beyer speed figure, I calculated the race much faster, in the 118 range. It was one of the most impressive sprint performances ever seen under the Twin Spires. 

5.  Mind Control - Started off 2020 with a win in the Toboggan Stakes (G3) and the Tom Fool (G3) at Aqueduct. Just didn't have it in the Carter last out as his connections felt he didn't care for the off track.

Next 5: Firenze Fire, No Parole, Flagstaff, Network Effect, New York Central.

Female Sprinters

1.  
Hard Not to Love - Covfefe left a huge void at the top of this division and no other has staked a real claim to this spot. Hard Not to Love won the seven-furlong Santa Monica (G2) at Santa Anita but in her last two starts she has tried to stretch out in the Beholder Mile and Santa Maria at Santa Anita, where she has performed admirably with a second and a third. 


2.  Mia Mischief - Disappointed as the odds-on favorite in her last start, the Winning Colors (G3) at Churchill Downs. Previously won the Carousel Stakes at Oaklawn in impressive fashion while beating Grade 1 winner Bellafina. 

3.  Kimari - Second to the boys in the Group 1 Commonwealth at Royal Ascot, she was well clear of the 14 others. Her only other start this year resulted in a win at Oaklawn in the Purple Mountain Stakes. Her connections have the Breeders' Cup Sprint against males as their long range goal.

4.  Come Dancing – Was up the track in the Apple Blossom in her first start of 2020 and then disappointed last weekend as the favorite when runner-up to longshot Victim of Love in the Vagrancy (G3) at Belmont.

5.  Pink Sands - Poor effort when stretching out in the Ogden Phipps (G1) at Belmont Park but she the did win the 7-furlong Inside Information (G2) at Gulfstream.

Next 5: Bell's the One, Break Even, Special Relativity, Bellafina, Jean Elizabeth.


Meet Chip Gehrke

Chip Gehrke has been with Horse Racing Nation since 2015 and currently serves as a Featured Writer. Based outside of Chicago, Chip can be found in the press box many weekends during the Arlington Park meet. The On The Air With Dr. Derby name originates from his local sports radio show appearances as an on-air racing expert. Now also a weekly contributor on FOX Sports radio's "The Fast Track," Chip can be heard giving his thoughts on the racing world every weekend.

In 2017, Chip was chosen to be a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association. As a part of the NTWAB, Chip became a voter for the year-end Eclipse Awards, something he takes very seriously. Some of Chip's favorite writings from the last couple of years is the best way to get to know him, along with following him on Twitter at @doctorderby.

" Manila and the Arlington Million

" California Chrome in Rarified Air

" Cigar and the Pacific Classic

" Spending Time With Game on Dude

" Go For Wand: Gone But Not Forgotten


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