It appears as if a Bill Mott-trained Juddmonte Farms 3-year-old will be one of the top contenders in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve after all.
Only the colt in question will not be Hidden Scroll, the sophomore runner who electrified the sport with a 14-length maiden win in January but was then unplaced in two subsequent graded stakes races.
Instead, it will be Juddmonte's Tacitus who will be sent to Churchill Downs for the first Saturday in May by Mott after posting a determined 1 ¼-length victory over Tax in the $750,000, Grade 2 Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct April 6.
"Usually you're only lucky enough to have one horse on the Derby trail. So when one goes down and you can pull up another, you're in a very lucky position," Juddmonte general manager Garrett O'Rourke said. "It takes the pressure off us for Hidden Scroll as well. I think he potentially is a very, very nice horse but we can go on with Tacitus now and do what's right for Hidden Scroll."
Tacitus had 50 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series by a virtue of a win in the Grade 2 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby in his 3-year-old debut, and only enhanced his stature winning the Wood, New York's definitive Kentucky Derby prep and a stakes that awards 100-40-20-10 qualifying points. Jockey Jose Oritz was in the irons for both wins.
With 150 points, Tacitus is now first in the standings with no fears of being excluded from one of the 19 spots in the Kentucky Derby available through the qualifying series.
The connections of Grade 3 Withers Stakes winner Tax can also breathe easier. By picking up 40 points, the former claimer has 52 points and is a safe 12th on the leaderboard.
"I told (jockey Junior Alvarado) that if he got run down for second it was OK," said Danny Gargan, who trains the gelding for R.A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Hugh Lynch and Corms Racing Stable. "I just wanted to be 1-2. With these Derby points you have to be aggressive (in riding the race). He will move forward off this one."
Shadwell Stable's Grade 3 Gotham Stakes winner Haikal closed from eighth to take third in his first start around two turns. With 50 points going into the Wood, he is also safe with 70 points in ninth. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he will speak with the colt's owners before making a decision on the Kentucky Derby, but it certainly sounded as if Haikal showed enough promise to earn a trip to Louisville.
"We ran very well," McLaughlin said. "Obviously, his first time around two turns he finished strong. He might do better with a little faster pace, but that could happen if we go to the Derby. You never know, two turns and the distance, it was a good answer. He answered the questions. He ran very well. He can do the distance."
As for Tacitus, the Wood evoked comparison with another Juddmonte horse – from a different decade. In discussing the homebred son of Tapit's chances of handling the Kentucky Derby distance of a 1 ¼ miles, O’Rourke referenced Empire Maker, who won the 2003 Belmont Stakes for Juddmonte's lone Triple Crown win.
"He reminds us of Empire Maker when he was coming into the classics," O'Rourke said about Tacitus. "If there's one thing you're not worried about with him, it's going a distance of ground. The only thing that could bother him, being a big horse, is getting into a tactical race but I would hope the Derby would be a good-paced race and that will suit him."
In a 20-horse field such as the Kentucky Derby, chaos also lurks around each turn and Tacitus certainly received an education on that front in just his fourth career start.
The son of the multiple-Grade 1 winning mare Close Hatches was one of several horses impacted shortly after the break when longshot Joevia and jockey Nik Juarez cut toward the inside from the outside post in the field of 11. Tacitus was then clipped from behind by Overdeliver but recovered and quickly settled into stride, a chain of events that had Mott saying "Oh (bleep)."
Tacitus was fourth on the backstretch as Joevia, who was disqualified from seventh and placed last, and fellow longshot Not That Brady battled on the front end. The pair posted fractions of 23.62 and 46.91 seconds through the first half-mile, with Tax seven lengths behind and Tacitus a length behind him.
Not That Brady led passing the quarter pole but was quickly passed by Tax and then Tacitus, who was rallying four-wide. As Tacitus and Tax pulled away from the rest of the field, Tacitus poked a head in front at the eighth pole and opened a clear lead in the final yards.
Final time for the 1 1/8 miles was 1:51.23 over a relatively slow track as Tacitus remained unbeaten in two starts at 3 and won for the third straight time. His career earnings stand at $653,000 after four races.
While the victory may prove to be educational for Tacitus, Mott pointed out that when it comes to the challenge of winning the Kentucky Derby there are no such thing as prep races.
"Nothing can prepare you for the Derby," said Mott, a Hall of Famer with a 0-for-8 record in the Kentucky Derby whose best finish was a seventh by Juddmonte's Hofburg in last year's race. "You need a horse with the right mind and disposition and who can overcome things. I don't know if there's enough prep races to get a horse ready for a 20-horse field that they will encounter that day."
Of course, Mott also knows he's heading to Kentucky with a top contender, even if it's not Hidden Scroll.
"I think this puts him at the top of the list with points," he said about Tacitus, "and the ones that earn the points are the ones that will be well thought of going into the race ... I thought it was a very good effort ... I have a month before the (May 4) Derby and a lot of handicappers think the third race off the bench is the best. So, I hope that group of handicappers is absolutely right."