The Tapit No one Knows

Handicapping the Belmont Stakes has become a piece of cake. Just pick a son of Tapit, as we witnessed yet again with the victory by Essential Quality. Regarded by many as the most dominant sire America has seen in a number of years, Tapit has become one of the great success stories in the history of the bluegrass. But that is not the only story. His brief career as a racehorse is not known by many, but needs to be told to complete the saga of this very special horse. ~ Steve Haskin

The Tapit No One Knows

By Steve Haskin

As you walk into the Belmont Park clubhouse entrance, directly to your left is “Woody’s Corner,” a collection of trophies and other memorabilia celebrating trainer Woody Stephens’ remarkable feat of winning five consecutive runnings of the Belmont Stakes.

It’s just about time to start an equine version with “Tapit’s Corner,” celebrating the Gainesway Farm stallion’s accomplishment of siring four Belmont Stakes winners in seven years. We are excluding the 2020 edition because that race bore no resemblance to the Test of the Champion, being run as the first leg of the Triple Crown at a one-turn mile and an eighth due to the pandemic that dramatically altered the schedule of racing’s most prestigious triad.

If not for Triple Crown winner American Pharoah defeating Frosted in 2015, Tapit’s son Tapwrit, winner of the 2017 Belmont, would have been the stallion’s fourth consecutive Belmont Stakes winner, an achievement that would have put him right up there with Stephens. As it is, Tapit has earned his place in Belmont lore with his remarkable feat, which continued this year with the impressive victory of 2-year-old champion Essential Quality. In addition, not only did Tapit’s son Creator win the 2016 Belmont, another of his sons, Lani, finished a fast-closing third, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths. So, from 2014 to 2017, Tapit’s sons had three wins, a second, and a third in the third leg of the Triple Crown.

Although Tapit’s first Belmont winner Tonalist was regarded as one of the best horses in the country, adding two victories in the Jockey Club Gold Cup as well as the Cigar Mile, Essential Quality at this point in his career arguably is the most talented and accomplished of his sons, with a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Blue Grass Stakes victory and a near unbeaten record. He also became the first BC Juvenile winner to capture the Belmont Stakes.

Essential Quality’s pedigree is an interesting one, with 14 sires in his first five generations contributing to his inbreeding. In addition to being inbred to Fappiano and In Reality, he is inbred four times to Mr. Prospector and three times to Northern Dancer. But what stands out the most is being inbred to Secretariat through all three of his daughters who have dominated American breeding – Weekend Surprise (dam of A.P. Indy), Terlingua (dam of Storm Cat), and Secrettame (dam of Gone West).

To demonstrate just how influential Tapit is in a horse’s pedigree and how much stamina he infuses in their blood, Conrad Bandoroff, son of Denali Stud owner Craig Bandoroff, who consigned Tapwrit to the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale, where he sold for a whopping $1.2 million, was skeptical how far Tapwrit wanted to go because of his immediate female family – his dam, grandsire, and great-grandsire were all sprinters or milers who produced sprinters or milers.

“I was surprised honestly,” he said several years ago. “I thought that, in the Derby, the distance seemed to get to him a bit. Those concerns were there with his dam Appealing Zophie running her best races over seven furlongs to a mile, but I think that’s what makes Tapit such an unbelievable stallion, that he can inject stamina.”

So, when we think of Tapit we think of his outstanding career as a stallion and as a sire of Belmont Stakes winners. But what most people don’t think about is Tapit the racehorse. Perhaps that is because his racing career was brief and ended with poor finishes in the Kentucky Derby and then the Pennsylvania Derby four months later. But there was a great deal more to his career and his adventures with his enigmatic and colorful trainer Michael Dickinson.

Michael Hernon, former director of sales at Gainesway Farm, recalled, “I remember watching him win the Laurel Futurity and going straight to the books to look up his pedigree. That really impressed me.  Then you see names like Relaunch and Foggy Note and Mahmoud. Once a horse shows that kind of brilliance and acceleration you know he has it. He had that smooth as silk acceleration, and he’s also got the pedigree and the physical attributes, and he’s got a great libido. His fertility rate is very high.”

At Tapeta Farm where he was trained by Dickinson for owner Ron Winchell, Tapit had a reputation as being unpredictable and always getting into mischief. One day, Dickinson’s partner in life, Joan Wakefield, heard a racket in Tapit’s stall and went running over to see what was happening. The colt had grabbed the rubber mat in his mouth and was flinging it wildly against the wall of his stall.

“He’s just a flamboyant little horse, who’s always full of life,” said exercise rider Jon “John Boy Ferriday at the time.

And Tapit’s offspring certainly seem full of life as well, regardless of the distance at which they are competing. The aforementioned Frosted, not only was second in the Belmont to American Pharoah, he demonstrated that brilliance Tapit is capable of passing on by winning the following year’s Met Mile by an astounding 14 lengths in a stakes record 1:32 3/5.

As for Tapit’s courage and fortitude as a racehorse, he literally brought Dickinson to tears following his remarkable victory in the Wood Memorial, a race Dickinson was convinced he was going to lose even before he shipped him up to Aqueduct. The colt had missed a lot of time and training due to a shin problem and then getting sick, and also developing a foot abscess, and Dickinson agonized about running him in the Wood in an attempt to make the Kentucky Derby, especially considering the Wood would be only his fourth career start, and no horse had won the Kentucky Derby off as few as four career starts since Exterminator in 1918.

To set the stage for the Wood, you have to go back to Tapit’s brief, but brilliant 2-year-old campaign. After breaking his maiden at Delaware Park by 7 3⁄4 lengths, he then put on a sensational display of class, speed, and courage by winning the Laurel Futurity by 4 3⁄4 lengths with a breathtaking burst of speed, despite a nightmarish trip in which he was bumped early and forced to steady for a good portion of the race.

Five months later he was trying to earn his way into the Kentucky Derby field in a most unconventional manner. But as it turned out, Tapit proved to be as unconventional as his trainer, who has made a habit of accomplishing the seemingly impossible.

Following an inexplicable sixth-place finish in the Florida Derby in his 3-year-old debut, Tapit returned home to Tapeta, located in North East, Maryland, where an ultrasound revealed he had a very significant lung infection. Another ultrasound was taken two weeks later and one lung was 100% and the other was 80%. Dickinson gave him a light five-furlong breeze and said he could blow a house down afterward. It was apparent he was far from being 100 percent fit. Dickinson was going to wheel him back and work him a mile, but told owner Ron Winchell and manager David Fiske, “I’ve got to give him as long as I dare to get him healthy and give the lungs a chance to heal. It takes 28 days for the lung to get a new lining.”

Dickinson gave Tapit several extra days and worked him a mile in 1:47 over the uphill course at Tapeta. On the Wednesday before the Wood, another ultrasound found one lung to be 100% and the other 99.9%. Although the colt finally was healthy, he still had only the one serious work and was about two weeks from being 100 percent fit. But Dickinson had no choice but to send a partially fit Tapit into the Wood, in which he’d face the brilliant Florida Derby runner-up, Value Plus, as well as the top-class Master David and Eddington, who, like Tapit, were in desperate need of graded stakes earnings to assure a place in the Kentucky Derby field. If he didn’t run in the Wood he would have no chance of getting in the Derby. It was decided to try and hope he could at least pick up a piece of the purse.

“We’re just going to be at the back of the pack and pass beaten ones at the end,” Dickinson said after analyzing the race and plotting strategy. “We’re never going to be in the race, we’re just going to come late. “He won’t win; he’s not fit enough. I’ll be over the moon if he can finish third.”

What Dickinson feared going into the Wood was that Tapit, being such a generous and competitive horse, would try too hard and give more than what was expected of him.

“He never knew he was sick,” Dickinson said. “Even when he’s not well he’s always perky. Nothing gets him down.”

Dickinson, as usual, vanned Tapit up to Aqueduct the morning of the race, arriving at around 9 a.m. Value Plus was made the 5-2 favorite, with Eddington at 3-1, Master David 7-2, and Tapit getting played, illness or no illness, at 5-1.

At the start of the Wood, Tapit got shuffled back to last, as Lane’s End Stakes winner Sinister G broke like a shot from the 9 post and engaged Value Plus to his inside. The pair were joined by longshot Cuba on the first term, but managed to get away with an opening quarter in :23 3/5 with Eddington and Master David running side by side. Ramon Dominguez steered Tapit to the outside down the backstretch and let him gradually pick up horses. The pace remained even, with a half in :47 and three-quarters in 1:11 2/5.

Value Plus was still battling with Sinister G nearing the head of the stretch when Eddington and Swingforthefences charged up on the outside, with Alex Solis, on Master David, finding an inviting opening along the rail. By now, Tapit was in full gear without Dominguez even having to ask him. He swung him to the far outside, as the favorites charged down the stretch. Sinister G cracked under the pressure, then Value Plus followed, leaving the four horses in need of earnings to battle it out for the all-important top two spots. Swingforthefences couldn’t sustain his move, and then it was down to three. Dickinson had been expecting a third-place finish at best and then would hope there would be enough withdrawals to allow Tapit to sneak into the Derby field.

In the stretch, Master David slipped through to take a narrow lead over Eddington. Just when it looked like Master David had the race won, Tapit, his head cocked toward the grandstand, came charging up on the outside like a dead-fit horse and spurted in the final yards to win by a half-length, covering the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49 3/5.

Ferriday headed back to the barn area with Tapit, and was amazed what the colt had accomplished. “He’s a brilliant horse to have pulled this off,” he said. To demonstrate how tough a horse Tapit was, he coughed the entire way from the winner’s circle to the test barn.

Dickinson stood off in a corner of the Aqueduct winner’s circle and tried his best to explain how Tapit managed to win the Wood. But even he couldn’t do it. He was too emotional knowing what the colt had gone through. This was more than just another logic-defying conquest by the unorthodox trainer. Although some perceive Dickinson to be a graduate of the Hogwarts School, performing Harry Potter-like feats of magic, he knew there was nothing wizardly about this latest feat.

This was simply a trainer in awe of a horse. Tapit had overcome one setback after another that winter and spring, and somehow was still in the Kentucky Derby picture, despite missing 19 days of training with shin problems, and coming out of his sixth-place finish in the Florida Derby with a serious lung infection and a foot abscess.

Now, here he was trying to explain how Tapit could come from dead-last over a speed-biased track, circle the field five wide, and mow down every one of his 10 opponents to win by a half-length. And this with only one race all year, and a poor performance at that, and only one serious work since the Florida Derby.

“I was dreading the race, because I knew he wasn’t fit,” Dickinson said. “He’s a very generous horse, and he has such a big heart.”

By now, the words were becoming difficult to get out. Tears were welling up, and his voice began to quaver noticeably. “I felt I was putting him into battle unprepared,” he continued. “And if anything had happened I would have blamed myself. But the horse carried me through. I’m indebted to him and we love him dearly.”

What made it even more emotional for him was knowing he would be heading to the Kentucky Derby with a horse owned by the Winchell family, who had supported him for years.

Dickinson previously had trained grade I winner Fleet Renee for longtime owner Verne Winchell. At the 2002 Keeneland September yearling sale, Winchell, his son Ron, and Fiske purchased the son of Pulpit-Tap Your Heels, by Unbridled, for $625,000, which was about $100,000 more than Winchell usually would spend for a young horse. He had been recommended by Dr. David Lambert after Lambert performed a heart scan on the colt. Winchell asked Dickinson what he thought of the horse, and when the trainer said he really liked him, Winchell promised him the horse. After being broken in Texas by Keith Asmussen, Tapit was sent to Tapeta Farm in May of 2003.

But Tapit would be the last horse Verne Winchell would purchase. Two months after the sale, Winchell died of a heart attack at age 87.

“He was a star, an absolute star,” Dickinson said. “He was a true gentleman and he loved his horses.”

Ron Winchell added, “Obviously, being the last horse we ever bought together carries some sort of emotional impact.”

For Dickinson, the worrying was far from over following the Wood. “Now, the question is, will he bounce?” he said. “I want to see him scoped, and see how he’s doing tonight and tomorrow. We’ll weigh him tonight and every day. The secret of how quickly a horse gets over a race is how quickly they return to their normal weight.”

All looked well, and it was time to ship to Kentucky to face the unbeaten sensation Smarty Jones.

One of the everlasting images of that year’s Derby was Tapit’s arrival at Churchill Downs. It was a sight no one had ever seen before and won’t see again.

As everyone is well aware, there is nothing conventional about Dickinson, who has always marched to the beat of his own drum.

When Dickinson shipped Tapit to Churchill Downs on the Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby, the trainer brought a little bit of his farm with him.

Dickinson packed the colt’s daily treats of Guinness beer and three eggs, along with a long swath of sod and grass from Tapeta Farm for his daily grazing sessions to make the transition from Tapeta to Churchill a little easier for him. It was an odd sight watching Dickinson roll out his carpet of home-grown grass over the grass outside the receiving barn.

“I want to make my horse as comfortable as possible,” Dickinson said. “He gets his one beer and three eggs every day at the farm mixed with his grain. He likes the grass the best. It’s part of his natural diet.”

Dickinson added that he prefers training at his farm as opposed to at a racetrack. “It’s tough training at the track and it’s very hard for one guy to rise above the rest. If I were at the track I would probably starve,” he said. “At the farm I am free to improvise. I can breeze my horses at 3 p.m. if I so choose. I don’t, but I could.”

He also brought with him several other conveniences, such as a heat lamp and a camera, which he promptly installed in Tapit’s stall.

Pulling off remarkable training feats at Tapeta was nothing out of the ordinary for Dickinson, who was known as “The Mad Genius.” Certainly everyone remembered Da Hoss. After winning the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Mile, Da Hoss was sidelined for nearly two years with a bowed tendon and other maladies. Dickinson nursed him back to health to win the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Mile after just one minor prep race at Colonial Downs.

So Tapit went into the Derby off only four career starts, and in one of them, the Florida Derby, he was sick and ran poorly.

“My health always reflects my horses’ health,” Dickinson said. “He was sick so I was sick. We’re both feeling a lot better now.”

In the Derby, whether Tapit bounced or simply couldn’t get hold of the deep sloppy track, he wound up ninth without ever threatening.

Put away and targeted for the Haskell Invitational, he was forced to miss the race due to throat surgery. When he returned in the Pennsylvania Derby and finished ninth again it was decided to retire him to Gainesway Farm for a $15,000 stud fee, which would prove to be one of the great bargains in breeding history considering that his fee eventually would skyrocket to $300,000.

With only six lifetime starts, we’ll never know how good Tapit could have been on the track. But we sure know how good he’s been in the breeding shed. His offspring certainly are giving us a hint of what we might have witnessed had he been healthy and able to continue his racing career.

Regardless of what he accomplishes in future years as a stallion, what I will remember most about Tapit is spending a glorious, relaxing morning at Gainesway Farm the day before the 2014 Kentucky Derby and being captivated by the stallion’s elegant beauty, his near white coat and refined Arabian-like head set against a backdrop of green and bright blue sky. I will also remember that afternoon at Aqueduct when Tapit brought his trainer to tears by winning a race he had no business winning. And, of course, there was his grand and unique entrance at Churchill Downs, where he received a red, or should I say green, carpet welcome.

Now here we are in 2021 with Tapit having celebrated his 20th birthday on February 27. Another Belmont Stakes has come and gone and the legend continues.

Photos courtesy of Gainesway Farm, New York Racing Association, Gulfstream Park, and Steve Haskin


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