By T. D. Thornton
On a Saturday that included bi-coastal graded stakes for sophomores, the most emphatic performance on the GI Kentucky Derby trail was orchestrated in a first-level allowance race at Gulfstream Park by Tapit Trice (Tapit).
It wasn't just the eight-length blowout margin of victory or the 92 Beyer Speed Figure that made the athletic gray's effort stand out. It's the fluid, three-race progression and unruffled demeanor that suggests Tapit Trice is ascending his developmental arc while honing an air of confident capability.
A $1.3 million KEESEP yearling owned in partnership by Whisper Hill Farm and breeder Gainesway, this Todd Pletcher trainee debuted as the second favorite in a one-turn Aqueduct mile Nov. 6. Green at the break from the outermost post, Tapit Trice willingly tucked in behind traffic, split horses, and finished with interest before galloping out like he had won the race, even though he checked in third.
Start number two was another mile try in New York, this time over sealed mud as the 17-10 fave Dec. 17. Again in no rush out of the gate, Tapit Trice lagged but got maneuvered out to the eight path to avoid getting pelted with kickback. He quickly clicked into “chase” mode, latching on to the back of the first flight a half mile out. He unleashed a field-looping bid in the six path turning for home, picked off the two pacemakers, then seemed unfazed when brushing and bumping with the second fave before nailing the win by a neck. Initially assigned an 89 Beyer, Tapit Trice's figure got recalibrated to an 87 prior to his Feb. 4 start in Florida.
Tapit Trice drew the rail and got first-time Lasix for Saturday's one-turn mile at Gulfstream, and somewhat surprisingly, he wasn't favored in the betting. That distinction went to another Pletcher trainee, Shesterkin (Violence), who had won at first asking over the track and closed at 9-10 odds while Tapit Trice went off at 13-10.
Jockey Luis Saez had to shake the reins at Tapit Trice when the starter sprang the latch, but the colt's characteristically lackadaisical way of getting out of the gate allowed Saez to swing him out to the five path behind everybody else. Tapit Trice then didn't need much encouragement to pick off half the pack as the field cleared the chute, and he assertively took up a stalking spot while gaining methodically through the turn.
Shesterkin got first run on the wilting 13-1 pacemaker. At the same time, Tapit Trice crested the five-sixteenths pole like a rolling, gray wave. He took dead aim on his stablemate and cracked Shesterkin without much of a fight by the time they reached the quarter pole.
Tapit Trice got to gawking around a bit freewheeling off the turn, but Saez saw no need to over-correct the colt. A right-handed crack of the crop nearing the furlong marker and a mild, kept-to-task drive was all it took to produce a focused finish in 1:36.44, with another strong gallop-out whetting the appetite for what this colt might be capable of once he finally gets hooked into a true stretch test.
Post-race, Pletcher was non-committal about a next start beyond affirming that Tapit Trice would next show up in a stakes. The score elevated the colt to 'TDN Rising Star' status.
A pair of Into Mischief colts swept the pair of Grade III events over 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream and Santa Anita.
In the Holy Bull S., Rocket Can established a foothold in the Derby pecking order with a visually impressive victory that came back light on the Beyer scale (82).
In the Robert B. Lewis S., 'TDN Rising Star' Newgate won a last-to-first stretch scrap over three so-so stablemates, earning a strong number (a 100 Beyer, shared with the runner-up) while having to work harder than expected for the win.
The Holy Bull in recent history hasn't been a safe haven for favorites, who have lost every edition of this race since 2017, with the exception of Tiz the Law's win in 2020.
Rocket Can was off as the 5-2 second choice for owner Frank Fletcher Racing Operations and trainer Bill Mott, and jockey Junior Alvarado opted to let the gray roll straight out of the gate from the outermost eight draw even though it cost them five paths of real estate on the first turn.
Rocket Can remained comfortably parked in the five lane while three lengths off the lead down the backstraight behind an opening quarter of :23.92 and identical second and third splits of :24.92.
Rolling four deep through the far turn, Alvarado nudged Rocket Can for more run five-sixteenths out, and the colt responded, seizing the lead off the turn and remaining mentally locked in once he hit the front under steady coaxing.
Rocket Can appeared to sense 34-1 stablemate Shadow Dragon (Army Mule) bearing down with a late bid, and maintained a three-quarter length margin under the short-stretch finish wire.
Although the 82 Beyer showed no progression over a same-fig second against allowance company at Churchill last Nov. 26, Rocket Can has now put together three straight races in which he's come out running to establish good early position, and he knows how to pounce off the far turn. This colt has also willingly engaged in deep-stretch showdowns in each of his last three, winning twice and not looking overmatched the day he was a runner-up.
It's also notable that Rocket Can won on Saturday despite the disadvantage of being a midpack stalker drawn outside over a track configuration that starts close to the first turn and ends at the sixteenth pole. He also had to make up ground into a moderate pace before finishing up with a respectable :24.78 final quarter and :6.43 last sixteenth for a final clocking of 1:44.97.
And on the left coast…
The years-long quantity/quality decline in sophomore stakes on the southern California circuit reached a new nadir Saturday when a four-horse field went to post in the Lewis and every one of the entrants hailed from the same dominant stable.
The effect was like watching a set of trainer Bob Baffert's B-level 3-year-olds work out over 1 1/16 miles. The field was comprised of a maiden, two colts that had not won beyond the maiden ranks, and another who broke his maiden in a restricted stakes at Los Alamitos.
Even Baffert recognized the dysfunctionality of the situation in his post-race comments. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen,” he said.
Something weird almost did happen: The longest shot of the quartet, the 12-1 Hard to Figure (Hard Spun), nearly stole the race.
In fact, Hard to Figure's gutsy loss by a neck resonated as a better performance than Newgate's all-out, last-to-first winning effort.
That's because Hard to Figure and Ramon Vazquez applied pressure outside of the second favorite, Arabian Lion (Justify), through lively early quarter-mile splits (:23.87, :23.89). The colt then had enough oomph left late to give Newgate and Frankie Dettori a serious run for the money through the lane.
The closing half of the race featured honest third and fourth quarters of :24.22, and :24.67 (plus :6.46 for the last sixteenth) for a final clocking of 1:43.11. Hard to Figure then galloped out past Newgate after the wire.
Hard to Figure is a May 19 foal whose only previous win came in the $75,000 Capote S. over 6 ½ furlongs, a race restricted to non-winners of a $50,000 stakes.
Newgate has been undergoing some change-of-tactics schooling that involves teaching him to make one sustained run instead of pressing the pace like he did at age two. He now sports a Beyer pattern that shows increases in four consecutive races.
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