Pick Six Racing's Vyjack extended his unbeaten sequence to four with a stirring late rally in Saturday's Grade 3, $400,000 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Most recently successful in the Grade 2 Jerome, Vyjack upstaged Overanalyze, the 8-5 favorite, who could do no better than fifth in his three-year-old debut.
Vyjack, the 2-1 second choice, was reserved much farther off the early pace by new rider Joel Rosario. Up front, the 33-1 longshot West Hills Giant had crossed over from post 10, appearing to tighten up Elnaawi a bit in the process. Elnaawi was then embroiled in scrimmaging in a rough entrance to the first turn.
As West Hills Giant proceeded to set splits of :24, :48 3/5 and 1:12 3/5, Transparent emerged as his closest pursuer. Overanalyze took up a stalking spot after breaking from post 11, but began to lose ground to the top two nearing the final turn.
At the top of the stretch, West Hills Giant shook free of Transparent, reached the mile mark in 1:37 3/5, and threatened to pull the upset. But then Vyjack gathered steam wider out. Surging inside the final sixteenth, Vyjack drew 2 1/4 lengths clear while completing 1 1/16 miles on the fast inner track in 1:44.
The Rudy Rodriguez trainee, who returned $6.70, $4.20 and $3.20, earned 50 points toward the Kentucky Derby.
"He's a good horse," Rodriguez said. "I wasn't worried when he was (almost) last (early on). He's that type of horse. I was hoping to see him that way. You don't want to gun the horse all the time. He was able to relax good and be comfortable. He showed that he's a really good horse.
"I told Joel just not to move too soon, let him do his race," the trainer added. "I don't think we've gotten to the bottom of him yet."
"A perfect trip," Rosario summed up. "He had always showed a lot of speed, but he was very relaxed today. I let him do whatever he wanted. He looked very good today. He showed he can (come from off the pace). He was very relaxed.
"He broke OK, and I didn't want to get in a hurry. I just let him do whatever he wanted to do. He was pretty relaxed behind horses, and he did everything right. Turning for home, I was pretty far behind, but that's where he wanted to be. He passed (West Hills Giant), and then he just kept on going."
West Hills Giant held second from Elnaawi by a half-length, but had to survive an objection to keep it. Elnaawi's rider, Channing Hill, claimed foul, alleging interference for the incident entering the first turn. The stewards decided to let the order of finish stand.
"He was a little green," trainer John Terranova said of West Hills Giant. "He was laying in a little bit when (jockey Jose Espinoza) asked him to go on. He finally switched on once that horse went by him. He's always been a little green; that's why we put blinkers on him. We may have to close them up a little bit. We have just a small cup on him; we may have to work with that a little bit, but I think this race will bring him on even more."
Siete de Oros finished fourth, followed by Overanalyze, Transparent, Amerigo Vespucci, Champion Boy, Escapefromreality, Sky Captain and Ore Pass. Now and Then was scratched.
Overanalyze ran flat, according to jockey John Velazquez.
"I was where I wanted to be -- perfect position, nice pace," Velazquez said. "He didn't come up with any run at all. When we got to the turn at the three-eighths pole, he let go and just didn't come with any run at all. Sometimes they need to get back to the distance again; maybe he needed the race."
Overanalyze had not raced since his photo-finish victory in the Grade 2 Remsen on November 24.
"He's got a race under his belt now," assistant trainer Mike McCarthy said. "(Trainer) Todd and (owner Mike Repole) will put their heads together and figure out a spot for him next time."
Vyjack more than doubled his career earnings to $442,200, all amassed at Aqueduct. A 1 3/4-length debut winner over the smart sprinter Clawback in his November 10 debut, the bay gelding thrashed Always in a Tiz by 5 3/4 lengths in the seven-furlong Traskwood Stakes on December 9. Vyjack handled the stretch-out to two turns in the January 5 Jerome, where he argued the pace before gamely outdueling Siete de Oros by a head. He clearly improved off that effort in the Gotham, for he handily dismissed Siete de Oros by a total of three lengths here.
"It's amazing -- words can't describe it," owner David Wilkenfeld of Pick Six Racing said. "You buy a horse, you hope for this, but it's not something you really think about.
"I was nervous (when he was so far back) because I've been watching the races all day, and everything is first to second and pretty tight. Watching it on the replay it was great, unbelievable. I saw him way back -- I saw he broke a step slow -- but (Rosario) got him to relax and he ran like we thought he could run."
Wilkenfeld noted that Vyjack would aim for Aqueduct's final major Derby prep, the Grade 1 Wood Memorial on April 6.
"That's always been our game plan to stay at Aqueduct (and run in the Wood)," the owner said. "We wanted to get a two-turn race, and we thought the Jerome was a little quick (off his previous race), but the Withers (Grade 3 on February 2) was too close to the Gotham and the Wood, so we took a chance and ran back quickly. Then we wanted to take the time and work with him and give him the proper rest and let him mature."
Rodriguez is cautiously optimistic as Vyjack traverses the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
"We'll see," Rodriguez said of the Run for the Roses. "We'll take it one step at a time; hopefully he'll keep improving. I'm excited about him, that's for sure. We thought maybe this horse could take us there. So far he's proven he can belong with this kind. Hopefully he can keep going."
The Wood is likely to serve up a Gotham rematch, as Terranova indicated that West Hills Giant could also try again.
"If he goes forward, we'll stay right here (and point to the Wood Memorial)," Terranova said. "He's a New York-bred -- no reason to leave here."
A son of first-crop sire Into Mischief, Vyjack is a half-brother to Prime Cut, who placed in the Grade 2 Peter Pan and the Grade 3 Lexington in 2011. They are out of the unraced Stravinsky mare Life Happened, herself a half-sister to multiple Grade 3 winner Disco Rico. This is also the family of champion sprinter Smoke Glacken.
Bred in Kentucky by Machmer Hall, Vyjack initially sold as a yearling for $45,000 at the 2011 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July Sale before bringing a winning bid of $100,000 from his current connections at Fasig-Tipton's Midlantic May Two-Year-Old Sale last year.