By T. D. Thornton
Birthdays with a zero on the end are supposed to be momentous occasions, and 20-year-old Tapit sure knows how to celebrate in style.
On Saturday, the Gainesway stallion even supplied the party favors for a double-barreled bash in his honor on the GI Kentucky Derby trail.
Exactly two decades after Tapit's Feb. 27, 2001, foaling date, two of his sons delivered sky's-the-limit performances as winning favorites in key 3-year-old prep stakes that firmly established both atop of the current crop of aspirants to wear a blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May.
The near-term debate will now center on which colt–Essential Quality or Greatest Honour–deserves kingpin billing on the sophomore totem pole.
An equally intriguing subplot involves whether either can deliver a first Derby win for the sire who has evolved into the most influential stallion of the 21st Century. Tapit has produced eight divisional champions, six Breeders' Cup winners and three GI Belmont S. victors. But siring a Derby winner has thus far eluded the now-whitened gray, just as the Derby itself did in 2004 when Tapit splashed home ninth as one of the favorites.
Essential Quality had his 3-year-old debut delayed by two weeks because winter weather thrice forced the rescheduling of the GIII Southwest S. at Oaklawn. Yet Mother Nature still managed to intercede by imposing a sloppy (sealed) racing surface Saturday.
The undefeated juvenile champ and 'TDN Rising Star' broke fluidly and responded to a cue to rate from rider Luis Saez, settling fifth into the clubhouse turn while vacating the rail and opting for a three-wide berth (in the gooey going, every jockey in the race avoided the rail like it was strung with barbed wire).
The big matchup in the Southwest was supposed to be the tear-away speed of 6-5 second favorite Jackie's Warrior (Maclean's Music) versus the high-cruise stalking skills of 9-to-10 choice Essential Quality, and the race unfolded as scripted in the early stages with “Jackie” leading the charge through a :23.52 opening quarter that jockey Joel Rosario then milked to a :48.11 breather of a half mile.
“EQ” took firm hold of the bit and wanted to pull, but Saez harnessed that keenness effectively and got the champ to edge forward incrementally while outside and in the clear for the backstretch run. Against the hazy blur of fog, the gray made headway at a metronomic rate of one position per furlong, attaining and releasing each target in a measured manner before focusing adeptly on the next.
EQ had given up real estate on both turns, but was full of momentum coming over the top at the quarter pole, getting second run on the caving Jackie (whose Derby stock slipped considerably after a second failed try at two turns). But Essential Quality had to brace for a fresh challenge in the form of Spielberg (Union Rags), who was unwinding from last and finishing fast after getting off to a stutter-step start.
The champ was up to the task. Essential Quality switched leads and took off when Saez asked, widening to the wire to win by 4 1/4 lengths in 1:45.48 for 1 1/16 miles, which translated to a 96 Beyer Speed Figure, an improvement of one point over his Juvenile win back in November. (The other same-distance races on the card were the GIII Razorback H., run 90 minutes earlier for older males, which clocked :01.15 faster, and an allowance-optional claimer nightcap for older males one race after the Southwest that went :0.75 slower.)
The Apr. 3 GII Toyota Blue Grass S. at Keeneland (where Essential Quality is 2-for-2) or the Apr. 10 GI Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn are reportedly under consideration as final Derby tune-ups by trainer Brad Cox.
'Greatest' Without Ease
While Essential Quality's Southwest S. win stamped him as a Derby contender who is fluidly polishing his prowess, the even-money favored win by Greatest Honour in Gulfstream's GII Fasig-Tipton Fountain of Youth S. (FOY) resonated more like an unleashing of brute force by a deep closer who ate a lot of kickback, totally lost his momentum on the far turn, then stormed home relentlessly despite a short-stretch configuration that does not play to off-the-tailgate tactics.
The raw power demonstrated by Greatest Honour in winning three 1 1/16 miles races this winter at Gulfstream has to be considered within the context that races at that distance at that track start very close to the first turn and end at the sixteenth pole. This often tilts the advantage to speed-centric runners, and the FOY in particular has been a house of horrors for well-backed “headline” horses. Prior to Saturday, FOY faves had lost the last four runnings and 13 of the previous 15 editions.
Jockey Jose Ortiz guided Greatest Honour to his customary spot near the back of the bunch in the FOY. Settling inside, the rugged bay wasn't crazy about being pelted with dirt, but he was hemmed in at the fence until the far turn. When Ortiz tried to edge out, Greatest Honour's back end got bumped by an outside rival, and the favorite appeared for a moment as if he was going to plummet back through the pack.
When a long-striding horse gets stopped like that, it can be difficult to get him back into rhythm. By the three-eighths pole (which is 2 1/2 furlongs from the wire on this configuration), Greatest Honour was still nine lengths adrift. He sparked back into stride when Ortiz switched him outside, but at the top of the lane, one furlong from the short-stretch finish, the colt was still five lengths off the action and under the whip.
Once in the clear on the straightaway though, Greatest Honour fully uncoiled. Granted, he ran down a tiring leader to win by 1 1/4 lengths in 1:44.02 (89 Beyer). But the visual impression he made carries more weight than any speed number. Watching him gobble up ground so voraciously led to automatic thoughts about what havoc a monster like this might be able to wreak given a longer stretch over extended distances.
Trainer Shug McGuaghey indicated the Mar. 27 GI Florida Derby was likely next. “I'm glad we don't have to run a mile and a sixteenth anymore,” he added. “When they're going farther, I think we might see a little better horse.”
Both Essential Quality (Godolphin) and Greatest Honour (Courtlandt Farms) are homebreds.
But for Courtlandt's Donald Adam, the connection to Tapit is gratifying on a different level.
“I bought the mare [Tiffany's Honour] in foal to a Tapit colt, and that colt hit the ground and was killed in a paddock accident,” Adam said post-race. “So, I bred her back to Tapit and got [Greatest Honour].”