Vyjack's owner, David Wilkenfeld, will be the first to tell you he is not really a race horse owner. The gelding's breeder, Carrie Brogden, will be the first to tell you the horse (as he is) technically never should have been born. And yet, if the Kentucky Derby was run this weekend, the undefeated multiple graded stakes winner surely would be one of the favorites.
In 2008, Vyjack's dam, Life Happened, was bought for a mere $4,500 at the Keeneland November mixed sale by Machmer Hall, the farm Brogden owns with her husband, Craig, and her mother, Sandy.
After getting Life Happened home, an Australian agent called and offered to buy the mare for double the purchase price. Brogden agreed, but the client never came through with the money. So, Life Happened became a member of Machmer Hall's broodmare band instead.
Come the spring of 2009, it was time to select a date for Life Happened, and she was booked to the now deceased stallion Bernstein. The only problem is when the mare was ready, the stallion wasn't. He had too many dates the day Life Happened needed to be bred, so the Brogdens were forced into changing course. A phone call or two later revealed that Into Mischief -- who at the time was not as well regarded or as expensive to breed to as Bernstein -- had room on his dance card that day.
"Literally, we had two hours to make the decision as to who we were going to breed her to," Carrie Brogden explained. "It's unusual to have to pull the mare from one stallion and go to another. It was such a scramble. It was like calling an audible."
The result? Vyjack.
I know there are people out there who try for 20 or 30 years and they won't end up with a horse that is possibly a Kentucky Derby caliber horse.
”-- David Wilkenfeld, Vyjack's owner
Brogden describes Vyjack's foal days as uneventful. He was a good-looking, healthy foal who grew into a good-looking, healthy yearling. He was sold for $45,000 to Pike Racing at the 2011 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling sale, but the Brogdens stayed in on 25 percent of the horse.
The following year, Vyjack was sold to Wilkenfeld's Pick Six Racing for $100,000 at the Fasig-Tipton Midlantic 2-year-olds in training sale.
It was the first time Wilkenfeld ever bought a horse at auction.
"It really is something," Wilkenfeld said. "I am not really a horse owner. I have claimed one horse in my life on my own, and I have given my friends a few dollars to claim some horses to have some fun, but that is it. I know there are people out there who try for 20 or 30 years and they won't end up with a horse that is possibly a Kentucky Derby caliber horse."
Trained by Rudy Rodriguez, Wilkenfeld's one-horse stable has been a successful one. Vyjack -- who is named after Wilkenfeld's parents, Vivienne and Jack -- is undefeated in four starts. The multiple graded stakes winner has earned $442,200 and is all but guaranteed a spot in the gate come the first Saturday in May.
"It was thrilling just watching him win his maiden race," Wilkenfeld said. "Everything he does is just one more step of excitement. It has been a great ride. I have been around racing a long time, and I know you have to appreciate everything as it unfolds because it can change in one day. Everything has to go right, especially if you are thinking Kentucky Derby because it is a one-time opportunity."
In the real world, Wilkenfeld's business is PromGirl.com, the largest online seller of special occasion dresses, which he started with his family. Before Vyjack, his experience in racing came from a bettor's standpoint, as his stable name implies. Although he has literally won millions as a handicapper, Wilkenfeld regrets naming his stable after his success in that realm.
"I should have named the stable something else; I feel the attention should be more on the horse," he said.
Although under the new Kentucky Derby point system Vyjack most likely does not have to race again before the Derby, he is scheduled to run in the Wood Memorial on April 6. If all goes well there, he will then ship to Churchill Downs to prepare for the big dance.
It is hard to knock an undefeated horse, but some may question his ability to get the 1 1/4-mile Derby distance because of his pedigree. However, both his breeder and his owner have faith in his athleticism.
"People kept telling me, 'He isn't going to get the distance, he isn't going to get the distance,'" Brogden said. "But I know physically he is a big, two-turn, route type horse. He has a big, long stride. I was glad to see that it looks like he is going to be able to get the distance no problem."
Vyjack may be a speedy horse, but he certainly proved his ability to come from behind in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes on March 2. Although he was on or near the lead during the entirety of his first three races, he was next to last during the early stages of that victory.
"We knew he wasn't a speed horse, he is just aggressive," Wilkenfeld said. "They really spent the two months between the Jerome and the Gotham working with him and getting him to settle more and be mentally more in the game. Everyone got to see the results in the Gotham. I don't know if the intention was to have him that far back, but we were pleased with the outcome."
Ten years ago, another knock against Vyjack would be the fact he is no longer a colt. However, with victories by Funny Cide in 2003 and Mine That Bird in 2009, that stigma has faded quite a bit.
"He is a strong, feel good, drag-you-around type of horse, and he's always been like that," Brogden said. "I am just so glad they gelded the horse. A lot of owners are kind of funny about gelding colts, but Vyjack wouldn't be Vyjack if he wasn't gelded. I think that was the key to the success of this horse, along with the great management of both the farm he went to after the sale and his current connections."
Wilkenfeld also acknowledges gelding Vyjack was necessary.
"I sent him up to Fair Hill, and they could barely get him to train, hence the gelding," he said. "Even when he first got to Rudy, he was a handful. He was bucking the exercise riders off of him. He hasn't been an easy horse, but he is coming around quickly. They have put a lot of work into him. Rudy has done wonders with this horse."
"The winner's circle was really chaotic, but he was calm as a cucumber," said Wilkenfeld, who was joined by around 30 family members and friends after the victory. "He was looking around like, 'What is all this commotion about?'
"I went to the stable later that night, and he was eating and prancing around. After the Jerome he was a little tired, but after the Gotham he looked like he hadn't even run. I think maybe he is starting to mature and settle down. A lot of the time, it just comes with experience and age."
Churchill Downs does not provide tickets to the breeders of the Kentucky Derby starters, but the Brodgens want to be there to see the horse they bred and raised line up for a chance at history.
"Obviously, if he wins the Wood -- which is a big if, as we all know -- I hope something will arise for us to go," Brogden said. "I am very excited. It is just kind of strange. All of these fateful things happened to get us here."
As for Wilkenfeld, even though his experience in racing prior to Vyjack was playing the odds for the best return, he knows the Derby means far more than money.
"As an owner, the Derby is the ultimate race to aspire to win, irrespective of the fact there are races with larger purses like the Breeders' Cup and the Dubai races," he said. "I think Vyjack is just starting to connect the dots a little bit, and hopefully he will keep improving. I think he has shown he has the talent and deserves to be there. You just want the horse to stay sound and at least have a shot to make it."
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.