By Chris McGrath
And suddenly it feels as though the milestones have run out, leaving the road ahead tapering to some unmapped horizon. Because from now on, every dime earned by the progeny of Tapit will take him deeper into record territory. The success of Perfect Grace in a maiden at Saratoga on Saturday–and neither the setting nor the mating that produced this filly, with Horse of the Year Havre De Grace (Saint Liam), could be more commensurate with the moment–took their collective haul past the late Giant's Causeway's current tally of $173,015,900 as the most productive stallion, measured by prizemoney, in the history of the American Turf.
Given that it was only last year that he relegated Smart Strike to third, at $151 million, the Gainesway phenomenon is plainly going to set a pretty daunting record by the time he is done.
Having turned 20, admittedly, he is now at an age that prohibits complacency. But his nearest active pursuers are all older still, with zero chance of closing the gap, and we will have to wait and see whether fate favors the 16-year-old Into Mischief–himself at a significant landmark, with his stock almost simultaneously breaking $100 million in earnings–with sufficient opportunity to maintain his freakish output.
Spendthrift, of course, are maximising quantity along with quality in Into Mischief's books. He covered 248 mares last year, and presumably a further advance in his fee from $175,000 to $225,000 will not have prevented continued exploitation of his fertility and libido this spring. Tapit, in contrast, was confined to 96 mares in 2020 after a book of 111 the previous year; and, though he evidently performed with undiminished virility this time round, Antony Beck has disclosed to TDN that traffic will be even more rigorously controlled henceforth.
“He's never bred really huge books but even at his age he had better fertility, breeding over 100 mares, than he did the year before,” says Gainesway's owner. “But going forward, definitely, I think we want to be very responsible. I think we've always respected his abilities, and [most years] didn't breed him to much more than 140 mares. His libido remains excellent, so we're very excited about what he can still do. But he is our golden goose and they don't last forever. We're going to trim his book back quite significantly from now on.”
This sounds typical of the temperate way Tapit has always been managed by Beck and his team. Apart from anything else, of course, their clients have always been confident that there won't be a glut of Tapit on the market, where his progeny has long performed as consistently as on the racetrack. Since he is also coveted by the elite breed-to-race programs, his yearlings have sometimes had no less value as “collector's items” than even War Front, whose conservative output is so familiar.
In 2017, for instance, this pair finished first and second in the domestic yearling averages with virtually identical offerings: Tapit sent 38 into the ring, War Front 37; and they sold 24 and 23, respectively, at averages of $791,458 and $678,980. (Food for thought, perhaps, for those who view stallions with larger books as somehow more “commercial”!)
To be fair, even stallions under restrained management today cover far bigger books than those commanded by breed-shaping stallions like Danzig or Mr. Prospector. And when judged purely by progeny earnings, of course, inflation has set giants of the past at an even more obvious disadvantage (above all since the emergence of the modern megaprizes).
But there's no doubting the substance of Tapit's achievement, as one whose hallmark has long been consistency. His three consecutive titles, between 2014 and 2016, have been followed by finishes in the general sires' list of fourth, sixth, third and third; and his lifetime ratio of black-type performers to named foals exceeds an extraterrestrial 19%. He is, moreover, a paragon of the old school in terms of recycling the ability to carry speed through two turns, this summer becoming the only modern sire to match Lexington with a fourth winner of the GI Belmont S.
We have become so accustomed to his sturdiness, as a noble white pillar supporting the modern breed, that it's worth reminding ourselves how very precarious were some of the moments in his rise.
For one thing, Tapit really had to earn his stripes at stud. He was launched in 2005 at just $15,000, and took a trim to $12,500 to help keep him in the game in his third and fourth years. But stay in the game he did.
“I don't think he was ever close to really slipping through the cracks,” Beck recalls. “He'd been enough of a 'talking horse' as a 2-year-old to keep breeders really interested. I remember being slightly dissatisfied with his fourth book of mares, that was probably his worst one, in their physicals. But he still got Grade I winners even then.”
No, the moment when the tightrope had become a perilous thread had already come and gone: during his track career, when it took all the skill of Michael Dickinson to permit breeders an adequate glimpse of his attributes.
That is quite a paradox, given that the soundness and toughness he has imparted to his stock was never doubted, in Tapit himself, by his trainer. Misfortune, however, permitted a deceptive impression of fragility: plagued by a lung infection at three, Tapit managed only six career starts; and three of those were disappointing. But Dickinson explains that only a horse as tough as Tapit–only a horse, in fact, with the kind of heart that breeders should want to recycle–would have managed to add the GI Wood Memorial to the brilliant performances he had produced in both juvenile starts.
As such, the Wood was probably the most instructive moment of Tapit's track career. Having given him time to nurse the lung infection diagnosed after a dispiriting comeback in the GI Florida Derby, Dickinson knew the horse was nowhere near fit enough to be running for his place at Churchill on the first Saturday in May.
“My emotions that day were all over the place,” Dickinson recalls. “Before the race, as usual, I was filled with anticipation and nervous energy. During the race, I could barely watch; and afterwards I had feelings of both relief and elation. I was so proud of him, and the team for the job that they did in getting him there.”
Very possibly he had not absorbed the generosity of his Aqueduct performance when running ninth in the Derby. As Dickinson says: “The slop may have been a problem but his herculean effort in the Wood definitely affected him.”
They tried to get him back for the GI Haskell Invitational, had to sit that out, and an attempt to regroup in the GII Pennsylvania Derby ultimately only hastened his retirement.
“Unfortunately we never managed to totally clear that up,” Dickinson says of those bad scopes at three. “We don't know how good he might have been. It was such a shame as he was probably one of the soundest horses I have ever trained.”
Tapit's stock is sometimes credited with high mettle but Dickinson argues that his Wood performance was instructive of the willpower that has become a far more uniform trademark.
“His personality and attitude, not just that day but every day, I'm sure played a huge part in him being so successful,” Dickinson says. “He loved to train: he just loved getting out there and showing off. Tapit was a very relaxed horse at home, although he always loved the fillies. He was a beautiful mover and loved to strut his stuff.”
His record as a two-turn influence, not least in the Belmont, has perhaps made people forget how Tapit sparkled as a 2-year-old, when his talent remained uninhibited by these pulmonary problems. He opened with an eight-length romp over a mile at Delaware Park in October.
“When he was training on the farm, he did not show blazing speed as he was always relaxed,” Dickinson recalls. “In fact Ramon Dominguez, who had been working him in the morning, was booked to ride him but took off the mount to ride a hot shot in the race. Obviously raceday woke Tapit up. Afterwards he was more aggressive. In his next start, the [GIII] Laurel Futurity, he did try to get a little rank but teaching him to settle was always a priority.”
It was his performance in the Laurel, exploding clear after being forced to wait for racing room, that gave Tapit his chance. This wasn't the conventional route to the top of the juvenile division, but on the speed figures that was exactly where Tapit now found himself. The excitement he generated that day would, for many mare owners, absorb all moments of deflation at three.
“Fortunately for Tapit, Michael Hernon at Gainesway Stud had watched the Laurel Futurity and made a mental note of how impressive he was,” Dickinson recalls. “When he came on the market the following year he remembered and went back to revisit. He saw something in him and was convinced he would be a star at stud. How right he was.”
Hernon's employer was especially intrigued by a rare brand of fecundity in Tapit's family.
“His 3-year-old career was not nearly as good,” Beck concedes. “While he was a Grade I winner in the Wood Memorial, it was a very weak field in hindsight. But his 2-year-old form was outstanding and I hoped that he'd be a stallion because the female family is one of the few stallion-producing families in the whole world; certainly in America there aren't many. It had not just produced stallions, but horses that were better stallions than runners. With Tapit also being out of an Unbridled mare, and by Pulpit who was a fantastic racehorse–and an incredibly well-bred one, too–we were thrilled to be able to bring him to the farm.”
The people who had brought Tapit into the lives of Dickinson, and then Beck, were part of what made the horse's rise so special. Bred by Oldenburg Farms and consigned by Fred Seitz, he was bought for $625,000 at the 2002 Keeneland September Sale by Verne Winchell and his son Ron, backed up by their advisers, farm manager David Fiske and veterinarian David Lambert, as well as Dickinson himself. The team had identified the gray as their premier target of the auction, and Verne Winchell stretched accordingly.
Poignantly, he would be claimed by a heart attack two months later–but for precisely that reason the whole Tapit journey has taken place with an unseen hand resting benignly on Ron Winchell's shoulder. (And how proud he should be, of his family's contribution to modern Turf history, after already seeing trainer Steve Asmussen to a parallel summit this summer!)
For the rest of us, however, it feels necessary to account less subjectively for the magic of Tapit. What is it that has set him apart—and what does he tell us to seek in other young stallions, entering so competitive a market?
On paper, Beck has already identified one key indicator: dam a half-sister to one stallion, Rubiano; second dam a half to another, Glitterman; third dam a full sister to another, Relaunch. But how does that potency play through, in the flesh?
“They tend to have incredibly good cardiovascular systems,” Beck notes. “And very good actions to go with it. As well as that mental will to win. He seems to impart these to a few good ones every year. He's a remarkable horse in that he has a quite relaxed way about him, quite sensible in many ways, but he's one of the few stallions I've come across that knows he's a star. He has that star power. I know it sounds crazy, but he knows that and is relaxed about it. He has such confidence in himself.”
The sparks of temperament that sometimes emerge from the Tapit forge Beck attributes to Pulpit's dam Preach, who was so notoriously aggressive in protecting foals that they had to be raised by nurse mares. On the other hand, his damsire Unbridled was cherished at Gainesway–and likewise Unbridled's son Empire Maker–as “an absolute gentleman”.
Indeed, Beck feels that Unbridled has contributed much to the overall package. “He also had fantastic speed and cardiovascular capacity,” he stresses. “Don't forget how he beat Housebuster over seven furlongs at Gulfstream Park. He was one of those phenomenal horses who had that kind of speed but could also get 10 furlongs very well. I think he's an essential part of Tapit's success.”
Even in the evening of his career, it feels possible to argue that Tapit's own versatility has not yet been fully tapped. Certainly he has been culpably neglected in Europe, despite perfectly respectable dividends on turf in the U.S. Only a limited Tapit, after all, will typically even be tried away from the main track.
It was a famously patient migrant from European racing, of course, who showcased Tapit's gifts in the first place. It's worth remembering that Dickinson won a Grade I on the same card as the Laurel Futurity with A Huevo (Cool Joe), brought back only that summer from an absence barely two months short of four years! Yet this unique horseman was able to adjust his sights to test a brilliant juvenile's eligibility for the Classics.
“I'm very proud of Tapit himself, as he was a wonderful horse to be around and had so much personality,” Dickinson reflects. “I think we did a great job [with him] as a 2-year-old, giving him the time to mature yet still making him a graded stakes winner. Unfortunately the gods weren't with us for his 3-year-old career. And this has always left me wondering, 'What if?'”
The fact that he clearly didn't fulfil his potential in his own Derby gives a corresponding edge to the one unrequited ambition shared, on his behalf, by so many people around Tapit. It looked like he might nail the race this spring, but Greatest Honour was injured and Essential Quality had a messy trip.
“Oh yes, it would be wonderful if it could happen,” Beck acknowledges. “They say Essential Quality ran 68 feet more than the winner, and he was beaten just over a length. I think he will be proven a superior horse to the one that passed the post first. Any Derby is a bunfight, 20 horses going as fast as they do. But I'm sure Tapit's very best years are still head of him.
“Whatever happens he's already been a game-changing, breed-changing stallion, and only likely to become still more important and influential with his sons and daughters going to stud.”
And if Tapit trademarks an entire epoch at his historic farm, then Beck believes that the momentum he has created will exceed the span of the horse's own career.
“One thinks of all the horses that have stood on the farm–going back to the early Whitney days, Peter Pan, Equipoise, right on through the John Gaines era–yet now I think Tapit must be the best horse in over 100 years to reside there,” he observes. “So yes, definitely, we're enormously proud of him. But I truly can't express how excited I am by the future of Gainesway. I feel it to be absolutely boundless: whether with our racing stable; the broodmares we have; the lovely young stallions like Tapwrit, who had a really excellent first crop of yearlings. It's a great farm, great land, with a most wonderful, devoted team caring for it. And we're all custodians of a great legacy.”