LOUISVILLE — Instead of judging him purely off the results of his three prior starts, the connections of Tapiture were keeping the faith there was more to the chestnut colt.
There is much fine tuning to be done for Tapiture to become a legitimate presence in the 2014 sophomore class, but enough intangibles came together Saturday to produce a 41/4-length victory in the Grade II, $175,200 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs.
The 11⁄16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club was the highlight of Churchill's "Stars of Tomorrow II" card which featured races exclusively for 2-year-olds, including the Grade II Golden Rod for juvenile fillies won by Al Stall Jr. trainee Vexed.
Tapiture came into the Kentucky Jockey Club winless in three starts, though all were on-the-board outings that hinted at stakes potential.
With jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. in the saddle, Tapiture rated between horses three wide just off Laddie Boy before showing some authority when he took command of the eight-horse field entering the lane.
"We had planned on running him in a maiden race at the beginning of the meet as a prep for this," trainer Steve Asmussen said. "It didn't go as planned but he came out of it good, trained really well and just stayed the course. I really liked the way he handled and got good position."
The complexion of the Kentucky Jockey Club changed drastically hours before post time when morning-line favorite Almost Famous — who also figured to be the early speed — had to be scratched because of a stone bruise in his left hind foot.
Where Tapiture made the early running on his way to finishing third in a 1-mile maiden test at Churchill on Oct. 27, he went back to his previous stalking ways by settling three-wide in tight quarters through an opening half-mile in :47.67.
When he contested the 11⁄16-miles of the Grade III Iroquois on Sept. 7, Tapiture ended up third, a half-length behind long shots Cleburne and Smart Cover. Had he gotten up in that outing, a trip to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile would have probably ensued.
Not being thrown into that swirling end of the pool may have played to his favor developmentally, allowing him a crucial two-turn win over the Churchill surface in advance of the relentless Triple Crown prep season.
"We thought he was good enough to win the Iroquois and got real close, and we thought the one-turn mile would be the right spot for him and it turns out he would much rather go around two turns," said David Fiske, racing and farm manager for owner/breeder Ron Winchell. "He had been training really well between maiden races and this race ... and when the favorite scratched that gave us that much more confidence."
Tapiture covered the distance in 1:43.51 with early pacesetter Laddie Boy holding on after being overtaken to grab second. Dobra Historia, sent off as the 5-2 favorite, was seventh in the nine-horse field.
When Vexed annexed the $169,050 Golden Rod by a length over Bird Maker, she provided a historical note as well as sparked Kentucky Oaks aspirations.
The filly's stalk-and-pounce triumph gave Claiborne Farm, which co-owns her along with Adele Dilschneider, its record-tying 32nd stakes victory at Churchill Downs, equalling the mark held by Calumet Farm.
"It's wonderful to have but I don't think we go in thinking we need one more to do this," said Dell Hancock of Claiborne. "You want to win every race you can and it's a tribute to (brother) Seth (Hancock) and my father that they have this."
Vexed had hit the board in her three previous efforts heading into the 11⁄16-mile Golden Rod, including breaking her maiden by 23/4 lengths going 7 furlongs at Churchill on Sept. 14.
"I think we saw what we needed to see (Saturday) so it's a question of just managing her and trying to get back here in May (for the Kentucky Oaks)," Stall said.