And sometimes, all it takes is a little luck at the claim box.
A little more than three months ago, when trainer Danny Gargan claimed Tax for owner Hugh Lynch for $50,000 out of the first race at Keeneland Oct. 21, he was involved in a seven-way shake for the Arch gelding.
When Gargan and Lynch won the shake, Gargan came away believing he was lucky to get a horse from Claiborne Farm and Adele B. Dilschneider who seemed to have a bright future on turf.
“I’m lucky enough to claim one of Claiborne’s horses,” Gargan said. “I’m not lucky enough to train one of their horses.”
In time, Tax may be tested for turf, but for now dirt has been his preferred surface, and it has put him on a path that just may take him to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
Following up a promising third in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes in his first start after the seven-way shake, Tax registered an impressive victory under jockey Junior Alvarado in the $250,000 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on Feb. 2, overcoming a stumble at the start and some traffic issues in the stretch to win by a head over Not That Brady.
In the process, Tax picked up 10 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series. Not That Brady received four, with Our Braintrust getting two for third and Sir Winston one for fourth.
“Junior was really impressed with him. He got stuck inside and clipped heels a few times. He had a ton of trouble. Junior said he probably should have won by three or four lengths,” Gargan said. “I’m happy that the horse learned and got an education, because he’s going to get bigger fields as he goes down the road.”
Tax started his career Sept. 29 at Churchill Downs, finishing second for trainer Ben Colebrook in a $30,000 claiming race. A homebred out of the Giant’s Causeway mare Toll, Tax was bumped up to a $50,000 claiming race for his next start by Claiborne and Dilschneider and caught Gargan’s eye.
“I knew the family,” Gargan said. “He’s a well-bred horse. A beautiful horse. A big, strong horse. We had to take a chance on him.”
About a month after the claim, Lucas Stritsman of Corms Racing bought a share of Tax, and perhaps that brought some additional luck the gelding’s way. In 2017, Stritsman claimed Divine Miss Grey for $16,000 and turned her over to Gargan. In 2018 alone, she earned $613,200.
At the time, Tax seemed destined to run in an allowance race on the turf, but after a brilliant workout, and prodding by trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, Tax was supplemented for the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.
“I thought he was a grass router, and then he breezed at Belmont before the Remsen and we supplemented him. Kiaran McLaughlin helped with the decision. He told me he was a monster and we had to run in the Remsen,” Gargan said.
Tax was third in the Remsen, 2 3/4 lengths behind the victorious Maximus Mischief, and was given a rest from that Dec. 1 race until the Withers, where his determination made him a graded stakes winner for Lynch, Stritsman, R.A Hill Stable, and Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, who bought shares of the gelding after the Remsen.
“I didn’t know he’d be this mentally tough,” Gargan said. “He’s a gelding and that helps him, but I am really proud of the race he ran and the way he overcame the things he did and kept grinding on the inside.”
Despite stumbling at the break, Tax grabbed the early lead, only to give way to the New York state-bred Not That Brady, who motored to the front from the outside post by the opening quarter-mile.
Through quarter-mile fractions of :23.56, :47.39, and 1:11.44, Not That Brady maintained a clear lead to the quarter pole before he was challenged from the outside by Our Braintrust at the top of the stretch. Meanwhile, Tax and Alvarado lacked room on the rail until approaching the eighth pole, when they darted through a small opening to grab the lead. While it seemed as though Tax was headed to an easy win, both Not That Brady and Our Braintrust continued to battle to the finish line, with Tax ($6.20), the 2.10-1 favorite, winning by a head, with Our Braintrust another neck back in third.
Moretti, who was sent off as the 2.45-to-1 second choice, wound up sixth in the field of seven.
Tax, who has two wins from four starts and earnings of $186,300, covered the two-turn mile and an eighth in 1:50.23.
“He won’t have any problem going the mile and a quarter,” Alvarado said when asked about Tax’s Kentucky Derby chances. “The company will definitely be tougher and he’ll have to step up his game, but I think he still has more there.”
The runner-up finish was a tough one for trainer Rudy Rodriguez, who owns Not That Brady along with Michael Imperio and Lianna Stables. His gelding appeared to be weakening when he was collared by Our Braintrust, but Not That Brady battled with determination through the stretch and was gaining on Tax at the end.
“I wish we would have broken better,” Rodriguez said. “We broke to the outside, and that cost us a little bit. Instead of being on the lead comfortably at the start, he had to chase and go very wide on the turn. We were proud of the horse and happy to have him in the barn.”
Gargan said Tax would probably have one more start before the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct on April 6, with the Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs and the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park, both March 9, the leading choices. For him, there’s a bit of history with the Triple Crown as he says he worked as an assistant for Nick Zito for six years while Zito won the Kentucky Derby with Go for Gin.
“Tax reminds me of Nick’s good ones. He’s a big, rangy kind who is learning and getting better all the time,” Gargan said.
The run for the roses, however, is a brand-new experience for Stritsman, which could complicate his family life.
“I never thought I’d be on the Kentucky Derby trail,” the Troy, N.Y., resident said. “If we get there, I just hope I can go. The Derby is May 4, and my daughter’s first Communion is the next day. I don’t know how to go back to New York.”
It’s just a guess, but given all the excitement winning a seven-way shake has given Stritsman and his fellow owners, if Tax makes it to the Kentucky Derby, he could probably ride a cloud back home to Troy.