Vinceremos must live up to his name to contend in the 140th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands at Churchill Downs.
But even if he runs out of the money Saturday, Vinceremos and his human connections have already proven themselves champions to Boynton Beach, Fla., resident Aimee Tompkins and her 4 ½-year-old daughter, Adison.
Vinceremos is Latin for “to overcome” or “to conquer.” After winning the Grade III, $250,000 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb. 1 and finishing second in the Grade II, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 8, the 3-year-old colt faded to last in the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass at Keeneland on April 12.
Like trainer Todd Pletcher, Aimee and Adison are willing to chalk up Vinceremos’ Blue Grass clunker to a dislike of the Keeneland racetrack’s synthetic surface. The Run for the Roses offers a chance at redemption – and Aimee and Adison will be in the middle of the excitement.
Through their involvement with the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center in Loxahatchee in Palm Beach County, they will attend the Kentucky Derby as guests of the horse’s co-owner, WinStar Farm, which won the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Super Saver.
Upon their arrival in Louisville on Friday, Aimee and Adison will meet up with the Vinceremos center’s founder and executive director, Ruth Menor, and her husband Mike, who were also invited by WinStar.
Adison – a developmentally delayed girl who was named 2013 Rider of the Year at the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center – was invited to meet the Sam F. Davis winner in late March following a workout at Palm Meadows Training Center.
Adison and her mom spent time with WinStar Farm President and CEO Elliott Walden, his wife Rebecca and their daughter Megan; trainer Pletcher; and jockey Javier Castellano, who gave Adison a jockeys poster and a pair of goggles.
That thrilling day, it turned out, was a mere prelude to this weekend.
“When we found out Vinceremos might make the Kentucky Derby, we started to make quiet plans for it,” said Aimee, a neonatal intensive care nurse. “When Ruth Menor told us we were invited to come up to Louisville and join the team, we were over the top.”
Vinceremos the horse was named shortly after WinStar’s Walden acquired a 50-percent share in the Kentucky-bred from Twin Creeks Racing, whose Team Manager, Randy Gullatt, purchased him for $340,000 at the 2013 Keeneland April Sale of 2-Year-Olds in training.
Walden’s son Mac had worked at the Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center while a student at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Coincidentally, Rebecca Walden had heard the word “vinceremos” at a church sermon and wrote it down as a suitable name for a racehorse.
“Vinceremos means to overcome in Latin, and I like both connotations to that,” Elliott Walden explained earlier this year.
The owners of Vinceremos have committed a percentage of his winnings to the center.
Aimee was intensely grateful to Walden, Pletcher and Castellano for their attention and kindness on that March day at Palm Meadows.
But as impressed as Adison was by their gifts and interest, it was the time spent with Vinceremos that stole her heart, as well as that of her mother.
Adison was born with an undiagnosed genetic syndrome that delayed such milestones as sitting up, crawling, walking and speaking. Aimee – who had previous knowledge of the Vinceremos center and the benefits of therapeutic horseback riding and wrote school research papers on equine therapy – first brought Adison to the center a few months after her first birthday, and she has been a regular participant ever since.
“From the second she walked up to Vinceremos, you could just see the connection between them,” Aimee Tompkins said. “Here was this huge, competitive, determined racehorse, and he just bowed his head and let Adison pet him and feed him peppermints.
“You could see his determination and his power, but he seemed to sense Adison’s fragility, like he knew he had to be a little more gentle around her. It was almost like they had a little code between them.”
Ever since, Aimee has kept her fingers crossed Vinceremos would make it to the Kentucky Derby. Getting to join the spectacle with Adison is a thrill beyond belief.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we are happy we can share it with them,” said WinStar marketing coordinator Leanna Packard. “We were touched by Adison’s story and happy to have them in Vinceremos’ cheering section.”
“It’s a tremendous honor to have WinStar include all of us at Churchill Downs,” said Ruth Menor. “Everybody who is involved with horses has that passion about their grace and beauty and appreciates the wonderful qualities they bring to our lives.”
The Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding Center has been in existence for 32 years. It conducts programs for children and adults with physical, cognitive or psychological differences through equine partnerships. “We serve children from as young as 2 to adults in their 70s,” said Ruth Menor.
In addition to therapeutic riding, which provides students the opportunity to learn and sharpen recreational riding skills, Vinceremos offers hippotherapy, in which therapists use the horse as a tool to achieve specific functional goals.
Hippotherapy is used to treat patients with autism, Cerebral palsy, arthritis, Multiple sclerosis and head and spinal cord injuries.
The first few times Adison got on a horse, before her second birthday, did not go well. She was frightened and cried until her mother took her off. But the fourth time was a charm. Aimee was the one who couldn’t stop crying, as Adison wore a big smile and waved goodbye to her mom from atop a small horse named Misty May.
“I haven’t been able to get her off since,” Aimee said. “I see the progress she has made weekly, almost daily, in her abilities, her strength, her focus and self-confidence. Riding has a lot to do with it.”
About two months after that first inspiring ride, Adison took her first unassisted steps. Aimee gives much of the credit for her continuing progress to the program and the horses.
“It was inspiring to see how much she loved being on the horse,” Aimee said. “She is not strong enough to participate in higher-impact sports, and riding made her so proud of herself – it gave her confidence and at the same time, it was helping to strengthen her little body.”
Vinceremos the horse is a son of 2009 Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile out of the More Than Ready mare Kettle’s Sister. Edgar Prado rode him in the Davis and Tampa Bay Derby, with Julien Leparoux getting the mount for the Blue Grass after Prado was injured.
Joseph Rocco, Jr., who rode his first winner at Tampa Bay Downs in 1999, will be aboard Saturday.
At morning-line odds of 30-1, not much is expected of Vinceremos. But in the eyes of Aimee and Adison, he is their horse of a lifetime.
“When a parent is first told their child is going to have permanent lifelong challenges, you wonder if she will ever be able to do what other children do,” Aimee said. “Then you get an opportunity to meet a horse like Vinceremos and the entire WinStar family and you think, ‘My kid is doing stuff other kids will not get to do in their entire lives.’
“That gives you encouragement and a ton of hope things will get better. When something like this becomes a reality, it is amazing.”