The Tapit colt was racing for the first time since his Nov. 30 triumph by 4 1/4 lengths in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs, and asserted his class by an identical margin over even-money favorite Strong Mandate, the 2013 Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) winner who was making his first start since a third-place finish in the Nov. 2 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I).
"We thought this was a good starting point for him and hopefully we'll be able to stay in the series here," trainer Steve Asmussen remarked. "It was a big step forward for him. I was impressed with what he did. I saw some things we need to improve and he'll have to continue to improve with the races coming up. I think the series sets up really well for him."
Tapiture, who has never finished out of the money, improved his record to 2-1-2 from five starts and earnings of $320,838. He collected 10 points on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) to assume position atop the leaderboard with 22 points.
The chestnut runner also had 10 points from the Kentucky Jockey Club victory and 2 points from a third-place finish in the Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) back in September of his 2-year-old year.
Breaking from the rail and forwardly placed in a group eager to get to the lead, 5-1 Tapiture sat just off frontrunner Tanzanite Cat as the quarter went in :23.45. He was part of a trio across the track when Ride on Curlin moved up to join them up the backstretch, the half posted in :47.92.
Jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. delivered a patient ride while keeping his mount in contention, allowing the colt's natural speed to move him to the front around the far turn for three-quarters in 1:13.06. Strong Mandate was launching a game bid after a slow start and wide trip under Joel Rosario, but had too much work to do to catch the eventual winner, who set down for the drive full of run.
Tapiture widened his advantage under a few stout cracks of the right-handed whip while drifting significantly through a 1:38.59 mile, and cruised under the line a dominant winner. Strong Mandate settled for second, while Ride on Curlin got up in a photo for third. Final time was 1:44.95 for the 1 1/16-mile event on a fast track.
"This horse was working really nice (leading into the Southwest)," Santana said. "I was so excited for this race. When we got to the straight, he showed all his class. He was really nice and was really relaxed today."
Rosario said Strong Mandate would have put up more of a fight if given a better trip.
"He broke a little slow," Rosario remarked. "In the first turn, I wanted to get into position, but I couldn't. I had to hold a bit because a few horses were bouncing in and out. He's the kind of horse you need to let run easy. He's a big horse and you want to let him do what he wants. Maybe next time we'll get a better trip."
According to Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, Strong Mandate will still be a candidate for Oaklawn's remaining prep races, the $600,000 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) on March 15 and the April 12 Arkansas Derby (gr. I).
"He ran well," Lukas said. "He didn't have the cleanest of trips. We had wanted to be more forwardly placed, but he got bumped leaving the gate and was actually wide the whole trip. The winner ran exceptional. We'll just go back to the barn and look at the Rebel Stakes (March 15)."
Trainer Billy Gowan also plans to target the next leg of the series with Ride on Curlin.
"He ran a heck of a race," Gowan said. "He was hung nine wide and he got a little bit tired. We'll be back for the Rebel."
Tapiture returned $13, $4.80, and $3.20 while Strong Mandate paid $3.40 and $2.60. Ride on Curlin brought $3.80, as Coastline, Tanzanite Cat, Bourbonize, Walt, Fire Starter, Son of Dixie, Paganol, Kendall's Boy, and Louies Flower completed the order of finish.
Bred in Kentucky, Tapiture is out of the Olympio mare Free Spin, whose sire was bred by Ron Winchell's father, the late Verne Winchell. Olympio won the 1991 Arkansas Derby (then gr. II) for Verne Winchell when trained by Ron McAnally, and went on to ace the Minnesota Derby (gr. II), American Derby (gr. II), Hollywood Derby (gr. I) and Malibu Stakes (gr. II).