Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott clearly is not a man in a hurry.
A mere 22 years after his first victory in Tampa Bay Downs’ biggest race, Mott grabbed another Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby triumph. And he did it with Tacitus, a colt with only two starts as a 2-year-old, and one who had not raced since his maiden victory on Nov. 10 at Aqueduct.
The homebred son of Tapit out of multiple Grade 1 winner Close Hatches took his first strides on the Road to the Kentucky Derby in impressive fashion Saturday when he closed from far back under jockey Jose Ortiz. Tacitus ran the 1 1/16 miles in a stakes-record 1:41.90, eclipsing the 1:42.36 record set by Tapwrit in 2017.
“He’s been a big, growthy colt all along, and when we were breezing him in the middle of the summer he was just a big, laid-back horse. We didn’t know what we had until we got into the fall,” Mott said after Tacitus got through an opening late on the rail and powered to a 1 ¼-length victory over Outshine.
Pasco Stakes victor Win Win Win, the 7-5 favorite in an 11-horse field, finished third with pacesetter Zenden holding on for fourth.
ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY LEADERBOARD
Sent off at odds of 8.90-1 in the Grade 2 race, Tacitus paid $19.80 to win as the fifth betting choice in the field.
Total wagering handle on Saturday’s 12-race card was $13,956,020, the second-highest amount in Tampa Bay Downs history.
In the Tampa Bay Derby, Ortiz managed to find the inside early from post-position 10, and rated Tacitus midpack on the backstretch while Zenden led Grade 3 Sam F. Davis Stakes winner Well Defined and the others through taxing fractions.
“He broke very well and gave me a lot of choices by the first turn,” Ortiz said. “When the nine horse [Dunph] went out, I decided to go in and follow the one [Admire] because I thought he had a good chance to win.
“I took a lot [of dirt], but the dirt doesn’t stick as much here as some other tracks, so I think it was good for my horse. He’s a little green still, but we got a rail trip and it opened up for us.”
A few anxious moments followed, with Outshine and Joel Rosario still looming as a threat, but Ortiz re-engaged the winner.
“He’s a big horse and when he made the lead, he didn’t keep going; he kind of waited a little bit,” the winning jockey said. “He does everything so easy and I don’t know if he’s given me 100 percent yet [in his three races]. I don’t think so.”
Ortiz won the Tampa Bay Derby for the second time, adding to his 2017 score on Tapwrit. Mott won the race in 1997 with Zede.
“I’ve been waiting a long time,” Mott said with a big grin.
“We’ve always liked this horse and thought he could be a horse that would be on the [Kentucky] Derby trail,” the trainer continued. “I liked him a lot better today at the three-eighths pole than I did at the five-eighths pole, because it looked like when he was trying to get between horses, I couldn’t tell if he was maybe fighting with the racetrack.
“He was climbing a little bit but once he got through between those horses, he really got some confidence and got some momentum. Jose said he actually finished with something left. He got to the lead and maybe started to dog it a little bit, but I thought it was a very good race and a very good education for him.”
Tacitus earned 50 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby for his Tampa Bay Derby score and now ranks fourth on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.
Bred in Kentucky, Tacitus is the first foal out of five-time Grade 1 winner Close Hatches, who was campaigned by Mott for Juddmonte.