There’s nothing Michelle Rodriguez would enjoy more than placing a plaque in the foaling stall of her Elite Thoroughbreds equine center near Folsom, marking it as the 2011 birthplace of Vicar’s in Trouble.
Especially if, on Saturday, Vicar becomes the first Louisiana-bred winner of the Kentucky Derby.
“That would be awesome,” said Rodriguez, who has operated Elite Thoroughbreds in northern St. Tammany Parish since 2000. “It would mean we’d done our job here to bring him into the world. Without that, none of the rest of this happens. We’re always proud of that.”
But truth be told, Rodriguez doesn’t exactly remember the then-unnamed colt’s time at Elite Thoroughbreds with complete fondness.
Vicar’s mother, Vibrant, is a cribber. Cribbing is compulsive behavior in horses: They grab a solid object, such as a fence rail, with their incisors and pull back against it, sucking in air. Unchecked, it leads to colic, which is usually fatal. It’s noisy, too.
Vibrant was so addicted that Rodriguez had to electrify the fence of the enclosure she and her foal were kept in. Even then, it didn’t break her.
“Vibrant was a good mother,” Rodriguez said. “But she was a royal pain in the butt. I didn’t mind it when she moved on.”
The reason Vicar was born in Louisiana instead of Kentucky — where he was bred at Spendthrift Farm as the offspring of Vibrant, a five-time winner in sprint distances, and Into Mischief, who raced only six times before being retired due to injury — was because of an incentive program designed to improve the bloodline in Louisiana.
Since he was born in the state, Vicar is considered a certified Louisiana-bred and earns 20 percent supplements to his purses from the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association. With his three wins in five starts, including the Louisiana Derby, Vicar has been by far the most successful product of the program, earning some $80,000 for Spendthrift.
“A horse like Vicar gives us all hope,” said Jake Delhomme, the former NFL quarterback who is president of the LTBA. “It validates our program and ensures it will continue into the future. The quality of our stock has certainly been raised by this program, which is designed to produce top contenders for the best races in the world. Obviously not every horse is going to wind up in the Kentucky Derby, but Vicar shows that you never know.”
Early on, it would have been hard to peg Vicar as a Derby horse. Vibrant’s cribbing had nothing to do with it, but he has been undersized since he was a yearling, as are his parents.
There have been undersized champions, including the great sire Northern Dancer. But big colts and fillies get the most attention.
That’s why Clyde Taylor of Youngsville was able to purchase Vicar for $8,000 at the Equine Sales Co. yearling sale in Opelousas in September 2012. Taylor said his average purchase price is $14,000, and he bought Vicar only because he has such respect for Spendthrift Farms.
“I never had an intention of keeping him unless I couldn’t find a buyer at the right price,” said Taylor, who stabled Vicar at Cypress Bend for a few months before turning him over for training. “I might have if he had been a little bigger, but not really.”
As it turns out, Taylor did make a good profit on Vicar. At the 2013 Fasig-Tipton Midlantic Training sale in Maryland, agents for Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey purchased him for $80.000.
“I still look on it as a good deal,” Taylor said. “But I guess I’m like everyone else who’s been involved with Vicar because I still feel like I have a piece of him.”
One of Taylor’s mares, Cayman Colada, recently gave birth to a colt out of Into Mischief, meaning he’s Vicar’s half-brother.
“I’ll have to wait to see what he looks like,” Taylor said of whether he will hang on to this one. “But I’m not going to sell him for $8,000 either.”
Ken and Sarah Ramsey hit the daily double earlier this year, wining Eclipse Awards as both the nation’s top owners and top breeders. It was their third time in the past four years in the owners’ category.
“I’ve always surrounded myself with the best team you can find,” said Ken Ramsey, whose 900-acre farm near Nicholasville, Kentucky, houses nearly 200 broodmares. “I’ve got a couple of people, Jeff Seber and Patti Miller, who have a evaluation company, and they’re the best in the business.
“They worked out Vicar — his cardio and vascular system, measured his stride — and they thought he’d be a top prospect. We actually paid a little more for him than they recommended, but I’m going to get the credit for their ability to deliver a good horse.”
Ownership can be a tricky thing. The most Ramsey, who has been a breeder since the 1970s, ever paid for a colt was $240,000. That particular horse won only a $5,000 claiming race and was later packaged with three others for sale as trail horses for $10,000.
“That horse had great pedigree and definition but couldn’t catch a fat man running downhill,” Ramsey said. “Vicar’s a little small, but he’s not playing second fiddle to anybody.”
Trained by Mike Maker and ridden by Rosie Napravnik, Vicar has won three of his five starts, was the first Louisiana-bred to win the Louisiana Derby since 1990 and is the first Louisiana-bred in the Kentucky Derby since 1996.
After Vicar’s first victory, a 13-length eye-opener in a maiden special in December at the Fair Grounds, Ramsey got his first offer for Vicar.
Instead, he’s counting on his first Derby winner after more than a half-century in racing. And he’s not daunted by the fact that, despite being second to favored California Chrome in the Derby qualifying standings and drawing the dreaded inside post position, Vicar is a lowly 20-1 in the morning line.
“I’ve got a friend bringing me an LSU cap and some purple, green and gold Mardi Gras beads,” said Ramsey, who also owns Derby entrant We Miss Artie. “I’m calling him my ragin’ Cajun. This is a wide-open race where anything can happen.”
Back at Spendthrift — located in Lexington, Kentucky, only 10 miles from Ramsey Farm — Vibrant has taken up residence again. And she’s still cribbing.
So badly that general manager Ned Toffey had her moved to a distant enclosure because the one she was in was adjacent to his house and the sound kept him and his family up at night.
“Man, she’s a hard case,” Toffey said. “Sometimes you just can’t (fix) a bad habit.”
But the success of Vicar — plus Vyjack and Goldencents, a pair of 2013 Derby horses from his first crop of foals — has raised the stud fee of Into Mischief to $20,000.
Vibrant has been busy as well. Her mating with My Pal Charlie produced a filly (Kentucky-born) now in training as a 2-year-old in Florida.
“She’s a very well-put-together horse — maybe better than Vicar,” Toffey said. “This is very much going to legitimize Into Mischief as a stallion for years to come.”
Although Vibrant failed to conceive last year, she is pregnant again, due in early 2015. It’s by Into Mischief, meaning the offspring will be a full sibling to Vicar.
There are no plans to bring Vibrant back to Elite Thoroughbreds for her next foal to be born in Louisiana — but not because of any reservations Rodriguez might have.
“Considering the success Vicar’s had, there’s no way we could turn down the opportunity to see if that happens again,” she said. “But Vibrant’s still a nutcase.”