Making the Grade, which will run through the 2017 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
High expectations come with a $1.2 million auction price for a Thoroughbred yearling, and Tapwrit started to live up to the seven-figure hype on March 11 when he set a new stakes record while winning the $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. The victory punched the Tapit colt’s ticket to the 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, and the impressive performance led to significant buzz about his Derby chances.
Ability: Purchased for $1.2 million at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sale of selected yearlings, Tapwrit has been a model of consistency in four races since a disappointing 10th-place finish in his debut.
He won his second start going a mile and then prevailed in the Pulpit Stakes at Gulfstream Park at the same distance in his final race as a 2-year-old. He earned a 98 Equibase Speed Figure for his first win and a 96 for the Pulpit Stakes.
After a two-month layoff, Tapwrit returned in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs for his 3-year-old debut and his first attempt in a graded stakes. He closed willingly in the Sam F. Davis but came up 1 ½ lengths short of winner McCraken, an unbeaten multiple graded stakes winner and one of the leading 2017 Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
If the Sam F. Davis showed Tapwrit could compete with the best 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail, the Tampa Bay Derby proved he could beat them and stamped the improving colt a serious player for the Kentucky Derby. Tapwrit relaxed off the pace in the 1 1/16-mile race and launched his winning bid on the final turn. He inhaled pacesetter State of Honor entering the stretch and surged well clear to a 4 ½-length runaway victory as the 11-10 favorite. The final time of 1:42.36 set a new Tampa Bay Derby record and Tapwrit earned a new career-best 106 Equibase Speed Figure, which was a five-point jump from the 101 he recorded in the Sam F. Davis.
Tapwrit’s push-button acceleration was on display in the Tampa Bay Derby. That explosiveness is exciting as is the progression he’s made in his two starts this season. With even a small step forward in his final prep race for the Kentucky Derby, Tapwrit would probably be one of the favorites for the first jewel of the Triple Crown.
Running style: Tapwrit is able to relax off the pace and reserve his energy for a powerful finish. He’s not devoid of speed — he has a high enough cruising speed to stay in striking distance or to be nearer to a leisurely pace — but he appears to be best closing from off the pace. He’s learning with experience. He was a little keen early in the Pulpit Stakes and seemed to be running out of gas late in that win, but he had plenty left for the Tampa Bay Derby stretch.
Connections: Tapwrit is owned by the partnership of John and Leslie Malone’s Bridlewood Farm, Aron Wellman’s Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Robert LaPenta. They combined resources to purchase the colt by leading sire Tapit at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale when it became obvious it was going to take seven figures to buy him.
Southern California trainer Jude Feld was an influential mentor to Wellman, who also got a taste of managing partnerships while working for Barry Irwin at Team Valor International. Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners raced multiple Grade 1 winner Curalina and 2014 Arkansas Derby winner Danza, who finished third in that year’s Kentucky Derby, as well as last year’s Tampa Bay Derby winner Destin, the 2016 Belmont Stakes runner-up it owned in partnership with Twin Creeks Racing Stables.
LaPenta owned 2007 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and champion 2-year-old male War Pass. He won the 2008 Belmont Stakes with Da’ Tara and finished second in the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Ice Box and second in the 2005 Belmont Stakes with Andromeda’s Hero.
Tapwrit’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, was a protégé of Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas who went out on his own in 1996. He has amassed seven Eclipse Awards as outstanding trainer and is the all-time leading trainer by career purse earnings with more than $332.6 million. Pletcher has won three Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby in 2010 with Super Saver, the Belmont Stakes with Rags to Riches in 2007, and the 2013 Belmont Stakes with Palace Malice.
Jose Ortiz has ridden Tapwrit in his last two races. Ortiz, a finalist for the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey in 2016, took out his jockey’s license in 2012. He recorded his first Grade 1 victory aboard Strong Mandate in the 2013 Hopeful Stakes and won his 1,000th career race on July 28, 2016, when he guided Moonlight Song to victory in the John Morrissey Stakes at Saratoga Race Course.
Ortiz earned his first win at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships later in 2016 when he guided Oscar Performance to victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. His best finish in the Kentucky Derby was a fifth in 2014 on Samraat.
Pedigree: Tapwrit is from the ninth crop of leading sire Tapit, who topped the freshman sire list in 2008 and was the leading U.S. sire for each of the last three years (2014, 2015, 2016). He stands for an advertised fee of $300,000 at Gainesway in Lexington after working his way up from an initial fee of $15,000.
Tapit sired 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner and champion 2-year-old filly Stardom Bound from his first crop and has been a top sire ever since with 98 stakes winners, including 61 group or graded stakes winners, through March 13. Tapit’s runners amassed $19,245,198 in 2016 to set a new record for progeny earnings in a single season.
Also the sire of champions Untapable and Hansen, Tapit dispelled any notion that his progeny has distance limitations when Tonalist won the 2014 Belmont Stakes and Creator gave him a second win in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes two years later.
Tapwrit’s dam (mother), Appealing Zophie, won the Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes as a 2-year-old going seven-eighths of a mile and the 1 1/16-mile, Grade 3 Silverbulletday Stakes as a 3-year-old. His grandam (maternal grandmother), Zophie, was purely a sprinter who never won a race longer than three-quarters of a mile.
From a pedigree perspective, Tapwrit boasts plenty of class — he’s by a three-time leading sire out of a Grade 1 winner.
Combine his pedigree with the recent improvement he’s shown on the racetrack, his push-button acceleration and strong connections, and Tapwrit feels like a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender. A little more stamina on the bottom half of this pedigree would have me just a little more excited, but this is a 3-year-old to keep a close eye on.