If one buys into the concept of Derby Gods, it is hard not to think this could be the year The Powers That Be reward a certain, well-respected figure.
The fact he already has a classic winner, not to mention multiple Breeders’ Cup victors, makes his legacy secure regardless if he ever gets a Kentucky Derby winner on his résumé. And yet, there is something about his production already this year that speaks to something even more special on the horizon.
Though the above narrative could apply to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, it fits just as well with the reigning king of the Bluegrass, otherwise known as Gainesway stallion Tapit. The record-setting, leading sire in North America for the past two years not only has the current top Kentucky Derby contender in unbeaten Mohaymen, but he is attempting to corner the market in Saturday’s Grade II, $900,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park with four of his offspring in the 14-horse field.
In addition to 7-2 co-second choice Cupid, Tapit is set to be represented in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel by Creator, Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Madtap and Gray Sky. It is an impressive show of sire strength and one that illustrates what a classic influence the son of Pulpit is becoming as his career racks up milestones.
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Tapit himself finished ninth as the third betting choice in the 2004 Kentucky Derby and while his early crops demonstrated he could inject speed and precocity into his babies, there were still questions about how effective his offspring could be in the Triple Crown races.
When his son Tonalist captured the 2014 Belmont Stakes, all such whispering was silenced. Other than widespread success in Europe, there has not been an avenue Tapit’s offspring have not conquered be it turf, dirt, sprints, routes, top fillies, top colts, 2-year-olds or older horses.
“It’s real gratifying and it’s fun to watch happen and unfold,” said David Fiske, manager of Winchell Thoroughbreds, which campaigned Tapit and retains a 50 percent share in the stallion. “You know, he’s now in articles and conversations with horses like Storm Cat and Northern Dancer and … that may be the best part. He’s a historically significant animal right now.
“He keeps defying everyone’s pigeonholing. It started out he was a filly sire then a sire of 2-year-olds. Every time someone writes something, he just defies them.”
Producing a Kentucky Derby winner is not a necessity when determining historically important stallions. A.P. Indy and Storm Cat never had a Derby winner, yet their respective impacts on the breed are such that the roses would have just been gravy.
That he commands an advertised $300,000 stud fee, highest in North America, is proof Tapit is a commodity that lacks for nothing. Even with the onslaught of contenders from Coolmore’s brilliant young sire Uncle Mo, this could be the year that the intangibles that made Tapit a leading Kentucky Derby contender himself show up on the first Saturday in May.
The Derby Dozen
1. Mohaymen: Exercise rider Miguel Jaime said the unbeaten son of Tapit was “like a Ferrari” as he clicked off a 5-furlong work in 1:01 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Friday. McLaughlin said while the expected showdown against champion Nyquist in the Florida Derby “is great for our sport,” he’s hoping the outing doesn’t take too much out of both parties. “If we get pushed, we get pushed. We hope it’s not gut-wrenching for both horses but we do have five weeks to recover.”
2. Nyquist: Trainer Doug O’Neill continues his pattern of putting longer, steady works into the undefeated juvenile champion, working him 5 furlongs in 1:01.40 at Santa Anita Park on Friday — the identical time he turned in a week earlier.
3. Danzing Candy: Track announcer Frank Mirahmadi was dead on when he declared the son of Twirling Candy “the real deal” in the stretch of his 2-length victory in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes last Saturday. In his first try against stakes company, the Cliff Sise Jr. trainee broke sharply, something he had problems with in his previous three starts, and was relaxed throughout his gate-to-wire victory. All of his wins have come on the lead so who knows how he’ll respond if he has to rate, but he beat the best the West Coast currently has to offer outside of Nyquist. Likely to face Mor Spirit and Exaggerator again in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby on April 9.
4. Mor Spirit: Can’t knock him too much off his runner-up effort in the San Felipe. He was fresh around the first turn, forcing jockey Gary Stevens to steady him, but got rolling late to outfinish Exaggerator for place money. “He probably got more out of yesterday’s race than he has in all of his races combined up to that point, as far as education and fitness,” Stevens said. “I felt a lot like I did when I got beat on Silver Charm by Free House in the (1997) Santa Anita Derby. I like what I felt and everything about it.”
5. Destin: Backed up his win in the Grade III Sam F. Davis with an even more professional victory in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby last weekend. The son of Giant’s Causeway had similar trips in those outings in that he tracked along clear in an outside path. Each time, he responded to a challenger in the stretch, turning back Rafting in the Sam F. Davis and fighting off stablemate Outwork in the Tampa Bay Derby. Assuming he doesn’t need to take his track with him, trainer Todd Pletcher has every reason to feel confident heading into either the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes or Arkansas Derby.
6. Gun Runner: Fired off a bullet move on March 14, covering 5 furlongs in 1:00.60 at Fair Grounds in preparation for the Grade II Louisiana Derby on March 26. If his connections don’t try to squeeze in another start after the Louisiana Derby, he will have six weeks between his final prep and the first Saturday in May. “It’s not an issue until it’s an issue,” said Fiske as Winchell co-owns Gun Runner with Three Chimneys Farm. “He managed to pull off the Risen Star after a long layoff and he seems to get enough out of his training so we’ll just see how it goes.”
7. Zulu: Finally showed back up on the worktab Friday, going 4 furlongs in :50.98 at Palm Beach Downs, his first move since running second in the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 27. His next start is still to be determined as Pletcher has said he does not want to send the colt against Mohaymen and Nyquist in the Florida Derby if both show up as expected.
8. Mo Tom: Remains on track for the Louisiana Derby, working 4 furlongs in :48.60 at Fair Grounds last Sunday.
9. Shagaf: Not sure he beat the best quality horses in the Grade III Gotham Stakes. With other contenders not stepping up in their respective prep races, however, the fact the son of Bernardini is improving is enough to bump him up the ranks. Trainer Chad Brown has been high on this colt from the start and the Grade I Wood Memorial Stakes on April 9 will cement where he fits in the Derby picture.
10. Greenpointcrusader: Feels like it has been years since we’ve seen this son of Bernardini race as the Louisiana Derby is set to be his first start since running second to Mohaymen in the Holy Bull Stakes on Jan. 30. Worked 5 furlongs in 1:02.30 at Palm Meadows Training Center on Friday.
11. Suddenbreakingnews: Has to overcome the outside No. 14 post in Saturday’s Grade II Rebel Stakes, but he handled the No. 13 post in the Southwest Stakes and mowed down his competition with a wicked late run. “In the Southwest, he circled the field but there are a couple races earlier in his career where he split some horses and really showed some courage,” trainer Donnie Von Hemel said. “I think he’s been well prepared for those kind of things.”
12. Exaggerator: Made a bold move around the final turn of the San Felipe but flattened out and was beaten out for second by Mor Spirit. Despite being a son of Curlin, distance doesn’t seem to be helping this one’s cause.
The Next Dozen
Brody’s Cause, Outwork, Fellowship, Whitmore, Cherry Wine, Forevamo, Flexibility, Uncle Lino, Discreetness, Matt King Coal, Ralis, Frank Conversation.
What: Kentucky Derby prep points race
Where: Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.
When: 7:06 p.m. EDT
Purse: $900,000 (Grade II)
Distance: 1 1/16 miles