This Side Up: Tapping At That Derby Door Again

We had the Forte (Violence) bit last week. Now for the piano. The champion juvenile resumed his sonata in virtuoso fashion, reprising themes established in its first movement with familiar verve. From his barnmate Tapit Trice, in contrast, we have so far only had a couple of experimental arpeggios–but even those have sufficed for their trainer to remove the local trial winner from his path in the GIII Langholm South Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday.

Now there are perfectly coherent grounds within his own game plan for evicting Litigate (Blame) to New Orleans, where he can open the final cycle of higher-graded qualifiers by contesting more starting points, and more money, over more real estate. Litigate having already sampled stakes competition, it’s Tapit Trice who would seem more likely to remain in need of experience before the first Saturday in May. (Four of Todd Pletcher’s five previous Tampa Bay Derby winners took in either the Wood Memorial or Blue Grass en route to Churchill.)

Even as things stand, however, a lot of people feel that the gray has the potential to wind in the geographical spread that typically makes the Kentucky Derby what it is–a showdown, on neutral ground, between the emerging leaders of their various local packs. While the center of gravity for the hibernating crop has arguably tilted away from Florida in recent times, with Oaklawn and the Fair Grounds offering a strengthening foil to the Californian talent pool, this time the two key protagonists could conceivably be strolling the same shedrow at Palm Meadows.

Tapit Trice has explored different dimensions of his talent despite a brief career to date, having set up his flamboyant allowance display with a gutsy maiden defeat of a colt who underscored his own talent when second in the GIII Gotham S. last week.

In that context, I can’t omit to complain that Raise Cain (Violence) surely merits rather more respect than he has been receiving for a visually quite staggering exhibition at Aqueduct. You only have to think back to last year’s Derby to see what can sometimes happen when a horse switches from synthetics to dirt, while hindsight discloses in Raise Cain’s earlier races a pretty cogent foundation for what he did last Saturday.

Even switching from grass to synthetic prompted a barely less revelatory performance from Congruent (Tapit) in the John Battaglia Memorial S. (Both Raise Cain and Congruent, incidentally, graduate from the mystery tour that gave us Rich Strike (Keen Ice) last year). For now, however, Congruent is primarily a reinforcement for a sire whose admirers are rooting for Tapit Trice largely because it would be a travesty for the Derby to remain the single glaring omission on a glorious resume.

At 22, Tapit is in the evening of his career and his books will increasingly be curated with all the prudence you would expect of the Gainesway team who have managed his career so superbly. (And who also, by the way, bred and co-own Tapit Trice.) As such, his remaining shots at the Derby are clearly finite. It was looking pretty promising two winters ago, when he had Essential Quality playing the Forte hand, with Greatest Honour and Proxy coming through pianissimo. In the event, Essential Quality instead made Tapit the only modern stallion to produce four winners of the GI Belmont S.

Essential Quality | Sarah Andrew

To put that record in its epoch-making context, it is shared with a 19th century stallion whose stock was adapting exceptionally well to the novel demands of what–relative to the punishing four-mile heats contested by Lexington himself–was almost a form of sprint racing. (For instance, Lexington also produced nine of the first 15 winners of the Travers, then over 14 furlongs.) The idea of showcasing the speed of younger horses, in a single dash, had gained prestige through the Classics introduced in Britain the previous century. For many of us, however, that arc has since been followed too steeply–to the point that the Belmont is now a unique test of the American sophomore’s stamina.

I’ve often remarked on the dilution of the Kentucky Derby tempo since the willful exclusion of sprint speed by the points system, and conceivably this has also contributed Tapit‘s wait for the winner he so deserves. Setting aside last year’s aberration, the race is no longer making the same demands that formerly identified the kind of speed-carrying genes we should be looking to replicate. Essential Quality, for instance, found himself in a procession of a race, the protagonists maintaining their relative positions virtually throughout.

Unluckily, moreover, the colossus who bestrides even all Tapit‘s other work was only able to explore a second turn as an older horse. Otherwise, of course, Flightline offers the perfect template for anyone who spends seven figures on a Tapit yearling, such as the one now hot favorite for the Tampa Bay Derby. Whether Flightline should command a higher fee than his sire is another matter: it will be 2026 before he can sire the winner of a maiden claimer, while Tapit has 30 Grade I winners and counting.

Flightline | Horsephotos

Not that we can ever neglect the bottom half of the equation. The Fappiano mare Jeano, for instance, appears not only as third dam of Essential Quality but also as fourth dam of none other than Forte. This branch of the La Troienne dynasty has already produced a Derby winner in Smarty Jones. But while Tapit finished midfield that day, covered in slop, he now stands on the brink of a fresh series of landmarks in his second career.

Tapit Trice is bidding to become Tapit‘s 99th graded stakes scorer and (through Thursday, at any rate) his 991st individual winner. The earnings of his stock, already unprecedented, have just tipped $195 million. Moreover these tallies have been achieved at an exceptional clip, underpinned by equally outstanding ratios for starters (84 percent of named foals) and winners (63 percent).

And that’s what I adore about the legacy he has been putting together: Tapit has not allowed the huge books of the commercial age to distort his efficacy, instead maintaining a dependability poignantly at odds with the extraneous frustrations that hindered his own fulfilment on the racetrack. How apt that Tapit claimed the earnings record from one whose ferrous qualities earned him celebrity as “The Iron Horse”. Of what, then, must he be made? Tungsten? Whatever it may be, he’s worth his weight in it–no less than that first Derby, as and when it finally comes, will absolutely feel worth the wait.

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