Gainesway's Tapit emerges as new king of stallions

James Kennon led top stallion, Tapit at Gainsway Farm in Lexington, Ky., on Dec. 11, 2014.   Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
James Kennon led top stallion, Tapit at Gainsway Farm in Lexington, Ky., on Dec. 11, 2014. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

Hindsight has a way of belatedly shining a spotlight on the obvious. It turns out that everything the Thoroughbred industry needed to know about Tapit's capabilities came barreling down the Laurel Park stretch on Nov. 15, 2003.

Tapit was impossible to miss in the seven-horse field for that year's Grade III Laurel Futurity, not solely because of his alabaster coat. He was the one cranking his head in defiance when his jockey attempted restraint down the backside, the one who almost climbed over rivals in search of running room, the one who ultimately distanced himself from the pack when finally allowed to do his thing.

Not much has changed in the 11 years since Tapit recorded his first graded stakes triumph. The 13-year-old stallion still mocks shackles by routinely Houdini-ing out of his halter and tossing it over his paddock at Gainesway Farm.

He also is once more the clear leader over his mates, having run roughshod over those in his path with a powerful surge to the front.

'He's just a phenom'

The North American stallion ranks have lacked a definitive king since the late, great Storm Cat was pensioned from stud duty in 2008 and the legendary A.P. Indy retired from his stallion services in 2011.

The question of which sire would take up the mantle is no longer open-ended. Rarely has a horse lorded over the racetrack and commercial ranks with the authority Tapit displayed during a 2014 season that saw him emerge as the preeminent breeding force this side of the Atlantic.

His star has been on the rise since his first crop took to the track in 2008, but there were no limits on what Tapit's bloodlines achieved the past 12 months. When his 3-year-old daughter Untapable won the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff on Oct. 31, Tapit clinched the single-season earnings record for a North American-based stallion. Through Friday, Tapit's progeny had earned $16,743,391 this year, surpassing the previous mark of $14,358,570 set by Smart Strike in 2007.

In addition to having probable champion Untapable among his 17 stakes winners this year, Tapit produced his first classic winner when his son Tonalist won the Belmont Stakes in June. As weekend after weekend went by with his progeny racking up accolades, commercial demand for Tapit overtook the Thoroughbred marketplace.

Tapit finished 2014 as the leading sire of yearlings in North America by both gross and average (minimum 3 yearlings sold) and had one of his weanling fillies sell for a North American record $3 million at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale. As the Fasig-Tipton November Sale was set to begin on Nov. 3, an announcement was made that Tapit would stand for an advertised fee of $300,000 in 2015. That's double what he commanded in 2014 and made him the first stallion to stand at that level since Storm Cat, A.P. Indy and Distorted Humor in 2008.

"It's a situation that's different than I have noticed over my time in the business," said David Fiske, longtime manager for Winchell Thoroughbreds, which campaigned Tapit through his racing career and still retains half-ownership in Gainesway's flagship stallion. "It used to be there were always about 4-5 stallions at the top of the pile. And it doesn't seem like that's the case at the moment. It seems like there is Tapit, and then there is kind of everybody else. He's just a phenom."

An ending, and a beginning

The late Verne Winchell, founder of Winchell Thoroughbreds, sat alongside his son, Ron, and Fiske in the Keeneland sales pavilion in September 2002 as the bidding climbed to $600,000 for the ivory colt — more money than the Winchells would normally shell out for a would-be racehorse.

In what would be his final purchase after decades of seeking out the best bloodstock, Verne Winchell indulged in one last bid of $625,000 to secure the Pulpit colt and unleash the seeds of a new era.

"It's a little hard to put into words," said Ron Winchell, who operates Winchell Thoroughbreds with his mother, Joan. His father died of a heart attack on Nov. 26, 2002. "Tapit turned out to be the last horse my father purchased, or we purchased together. So there is a little emotional tie that goes back to that

"It's kind of ironic that the thing you're trying to achieve — having a great stallion and a great racehorse — happened ... but (my father) couldn't experience it himself. It turned out to be the end of his part of the legacy and essentially the beginning of mine."

A game-changer emerges

Despite flashing brilliance as a 2-year-old and becoming a Kentucky Derby favorite by winning the 2004 Wood Memorial, Tapit's racing career was limited to six starts. Illness and ailments prevented him from fulfilling his promise on the track.

After winning the Laurel Futurity in bullish fashion in his second career start, Tapit was hindered by a lung infection discovered after his sixth-place finish in the 2004 Florida Derby. He bounced back to win the Wood and was the third choice in the Kentucky Derby but finished ninth behind winner Smarty Jones. He skipped the Preakness and was scratched from the Belmont when the lung infection lingered. He was retired from racing later that year.

"He was so highly thought of, preparing him as a 2-year-old," Ron Winchell recalled. "There is that moment when you're hearing about how great everyone thinks he is and there is that moment when they actually do it on the track. But he was always chasing those ailments and it hindered his ultimate ability."

When Tapit retired to Gainesway for his initial season at stud in 2005, he entered the stallion ranks with a modest $15,000 fee and reasonable expectations of the kind of horse he would produce in those crucial first few crops.

At that price, he was getting mostly undistinguished mares with flickers of talent back in their pedigree.

However, exceptional stallions can impose the best of their genes onto offspring even if their mates don't offer blue-hen credentials. And as the economic crash of 2008 wreaked havoc in the Thoroughbred breeding and sales industries, Tapit signaled that he was on course to becoming the next game-changer in the breeding shed.

No limits

Tapit's bloodlines look like those of a top stallion. A grandson of A.P. Indy and from a female family boasting multiple stakes winners, he carries the mix of classic ability and precocity breeders salivate over.

As his first crop of offspring began hitting the track, what came through most was the innate refusal to yield to a challenge that their sire displayed in his career-defining victories.

With his fee at $12,500 in 2008, Tapit began his express ascent with an initial crop of runners that included 2008 champion juvenile filly Stardom Bound, Grade I winner Laragh and future Grade I heroine Careless Jewel.

As his fee jumped to $35,000 for the 2009 season, the riches kept coming with his filly Tapitsfly taking that year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and Careless Jewel establishing herself in the distaff ranks.

"He's a very dominant horse who can radically change a mare's produce record," said Michael Hernon, Gainesway's director of sales. "He was the leading freshman and juvenile sire but he was already really improving his mares physically from the very beginning.

"For me the defining thing about his stock is the hugely competitive nature in a race that comes from him. It just seems like if you're in a driving finish and one horse is by Tapit, it's most likely going to win."

Some of the industry's best-ever sires were limited in what they could produce, be it primarily dirt runners or commercially popular, fast babies who didn't necessarily have enduring race careers.

Whenever the temptation arises to define Tapit's bounds, he produces a runner that prompts a retraction. In 2011, he showed he wasn't just a sire of top fillies when his son Hansen won that year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile en route to claiming divisional honors. Another Breeders' Cup-winning colt emerged the following year when his son Tapizar took the 2012 Dirt Mile.

Regardless of surface type or distance, there exists a Tapit baby that has been there and done that with style.

"It was kind of amusing to watch the commentary on his stud career as it progressed," Fiske said. "Every time somebody tried to pigeonhole him, some other horse would come along and blow it out of the water.

"You always hope your stallion is successful, but Tapit has gotten to a point where it is nobody's doing but his own. From time to time we'll have a mare and say, 'We should breed her to Tapit.' Then we go, 'I don't know if she's good enough.' And then the next argument is, look at the mares he was bred to the first 2-3 years, and he got Stardom Bound and Tapitsfly."

Best might still be ahead

With his best books of mares possibly still to come, about the only bastion left for Tapit to conquer is having a top runner of his emerge in Europe. Given the way shoppers pursue his offspring in the sales arena, globally successful progeny should not be far off.

At his new $300,000 fee, Tapit is already booked full for 2015 with his book limited to 135 mares. He also is getting a start on the elite distinction of becoming a sire of sires with Tapizar standing alongside him now at Gainesway.

"With Tapit now, there is no doubt. That's the comment that comes back to me," Hernon said. "You're going to get something special. He can change a mare's life, he can change a breeder's life. He's already left an indelible mark on the stud book that one would assume would only become further impressive."