Yes, he was thrilled at the prospect of aiming for a Triple Crown with convincing Derby winner Always Dreaming. But what would he do with Tapwrit, purchased as a $1.2 million yearling with the belief that he could develop into a perfect Belmont Stakes horse, if Always Dreaming was aiming for an historic sweep?
“The two-week turnaround from the Derby to the Preakness is a really short time for a horse but a pretty long time for a horse trainer,” Pletcher said.
Things have a way of working out for Pletcher, winner of a record seven Eclipse Awards as the leading trainer in North America, and they worked out again this time.
Although Always Dreaming proved to be an eighth-place disappointment in the Preakness, Tapwrit was everything his connections thought he would be on Saturday. Maybe more. He charged home for a two-length victory against Irish War Cry in the 149thBelmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets before 57,729 spectators at Belmont Park.
“It’s all good,” Pletcher said.
It’s more than good after he earned his third Belmont Stakes victory. Tapwrit followed previous successes with Rags to Riches who, in 2007, became the third filly to withstand the rigors of the mile-and-a-half marathon and the first in 105 years. Palace Malice got the job done six years later.
“It’s our home base and I think that’s always an advantage,” Pletcher said. “We felt like with the five weeks in between, and with the way this horse had trained, that we had a legitimate chance.”
Pletcher’s record in the final leg of the Triple Crown gains added luster when his five second-place finishes are considered. Two of those involved oh-so-close photo finishes, when Commissioner missed by a head against Tonalist in 2014 and Destin was nipped by nothing more than Creator’s nose last year.
His latest triumph comes with a huge assist from jockey Jose Ortiz, who gave the son of Tapit an ideal ground-saving trip from post 2 in a field of 11.
“It was everything we talked about in the paddock before the race,” Pletcher said. “We were hoping he had enough when it came to crunch time. It looked like Irish War Cry still had a little something left, but in the last sixteenth, he dug down deep.”
Tapwrit, despite his lofty price tag, has been a work in progress since he finished at the back of the pack in a forgettable debut last Sept. 3 at Saratoga Race Course. He produced his only previous graded stakes victory when Ortiz rode him to a 4 ½-length decision in the Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 11.
That was followed by two disappointing results. Tapwrit missed the break in settling for fifth in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, then became embroiled in a rough start in the Kentucky Derby, where he did well to come home a mud-splattered sixth on the wet track at Churchill Downs. Ortiz was aboard for both of those misadventures.
As disconcerting as those results were, Pletcher never wavered from Ortiz and the jockey stuck with Tapwrit. “I always liked him and we always had a lot of faith in him,” Ortiz said. “Today he showed up.”
Tapwrit was never worse than fourth as Ortiz kept pacesetting Irish War Cry in his sights. He implored his colt for all he was worth during the stretch run, and Tapwrit gradually wore down Irish War Cry under steady left-handed urging.
Tapwrit completed the mile and a half in 2:30.02. He returned $12.60 to win. Patch, another Pletcher trainee best known for having one eye, salvaged third.
Tapwrit also became the third Belmont winner in the past four years to be sired by the leading North American stallion Tapit, following Tonalist in 2014 and Creator last year.
A number of horses were conspicuous in their absence. The connections of Always Dreaming and Preakness victor Cloud Computing elected not to run. They will target major races in the second half of the season.
Classic Empire, the Preakness runner-up and the expected Belmont favorite, was found to have a foot abscess on Wednesday morning and was withdrawn from consideration.
Epicharis, thought to have a big shot to give Japan its first Belmont winner, was scratched the morning of the race when a veterinary exam revealed continued inflammation in his right front foot. He was the second choice in the morning line at 4-1.
Epicharis had been treated with medication on Wednesday and Thursday and did not train either of the two days leading to the race. Wagering in a separate, non-commingled pool in Japan continued despite Epicharis’ absence.