There is a certain domino effect that gets unleashed when a well-regarded yearling enters the public auction area and exits with a seven-figure tally on the board.
There are expectations the high-priced youngster must shoulder before they ever have a saddle on their backs, because when a horse boasts the pedigree and physical look to elicit a rarified figure in the Thoroughbred marketplace, certain boxes must be checked in order for such a purchase to even come close to being considered a wise purchase.
All those factors hung heavy over the connections of Tapwrit as the gray or roan colt was loaded into gate for his debut at Saratoga Race Course last Sept. 3. And as his connections watched their $1.2 million purchase finish last in the field of 10 that day, they were hit with the sinking feeling that the potential they thought they saw the summer before had led them awry.
"I think the general consensus that day was a severe case of nausea to be honest," laughed Aron Wellman of Eclipse Thoroughbreds, which partnered with Bridlewood Farm and Robert LaPenta to land the son of Tapit at the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga select yearling exercise. "We had realistic expectations in terms of knowing that he probably wasn't the type of horse that was going to fire first time out. But to say that he would show as little as he did that day, I would be lying if I said we expected that—nor would we have ever run him had we expected that."
Among the many things that became clear that day, according to Wellman, was that it was time to stop letting the colt's pricetag translate into special treatment. And ever since giving trainer Todd Pletcher the green light to remove the kid gloves, Tapwrit has responded by becoming all they hoped he would when he was deemed a must-have from the Denali Stud consignment.
What that is, exactly, is a graded-stakes winning sophomore with ample Kentucky Derby (G1) qualifying points and form that is on the upswing at the most crucial time of his young career. While unbeaten McCraken looms as the 7-5 morning-line favorite for the $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) April 8 at Keeneland, 5-2 second choice Tapwrit stands as the leading threat to derail the pro-tem divisional leader in their final prep before the first Saturday in May.
The current narrative Tapwrit brings to the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass is befitting his million-dollar baby status. In his fifth career start and second outing of his 3-year-old campaign, he ran exactly the way a colt that is the product of two grade 1 winners and trained by a seven-time Eclipse Award winner should when he threaded his way between rivals and drew off in the lane to win the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2) by 4 1/2 lengths in a stakes-record time of 1:42.36.
That the colt out of Appealing Zophie, by Successful Appeal , handled being caught wide in the first turn and was able to uncork his turn of foot while still in traffic was more impressive considering where he started mentally. As a 2-year-old, Tapwrit displayed some of his sire's notorious temperament in the form of immaturity and gate issues—all of which contributed to his dud of a debut.
Quirky as they can be, Tapits are also known for their ferocity once the light bulb clicks. The first such indication of the latter came when Tapwrit broke his maiden at Gulfstream Park West going one mile Nov. 6. He then bested eventual stakes winner Master Plan by one length in an off-the-turf edition of the Pulpit Stakes Dec. 10 to close out his juvenile campaign with an infusion of hope.
"He was a horse that we had probably been too easy on and sometimes that can happen with a high-priced, well-bred individual," Wellman said. "And honestly, he did not train up to his debut at Saratoga last summer like a horse who was going to be tuned-in first out. He was very backwards from a mental perspective. He was giving us trouble at the gate, we needed a blindfold to load him that day during his debut. He wasn't polishing off his works in impressive fashion.
"We all sort of understood what his inclination was at first asking. It went worse than we had envisioned but it was an important experience for us because it really allowed us to take a step back and say, 'Hey, let's let Todd take off the kid gloves and rather than babying him, let's start to treat him like a man and see how he responds.' With a little bit more aggressive approach, this horse just began to transform before everyone's eyes."
The sense that Tapwrit would be decidedly more comfortable traveling two turns was validated in his last couple 2-year-old outings. Another lesson learned as he held a five-length lead in the stretch of the Pulpit Stakes was that timing his moves was key, lest he started thinking his job was done once he reached the front.
When he made his seasonal debut against McCraken in the Feb. 11 Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3), Tapwrit came home 1 1/2 lengths in second behind his unblemished rival, but with a step forward having been notched nonetheless. After being on the rail for much of the 1 1/16-mile test, jockey Jose Ortiz had to make a couple moves to angle his mount out in the lane, but had a horse beneath him that was flying late once he got clear running room.
"I think he ran a deceptively good race that day behind McCraken," Wellman said. "He was hemmed in on the rail for a long, long way and finally when Jose was able to extricate him, he really got out into the clear and leveled off beautifully. He handled the track well enough to win that day ... and trained very well in the interim. Obviously (the Tampa Bay Derby) lost its star with McCraken bypassing that race but we were very confident in our colt regardless. And he put forth every bit of the performance—and then some—we were hoping to see out of him."
The seven-horse Blue Grass lineup figures to provide a litmus test on just how much Tapwrit has improved and how legitimate McCraken's form is off of just one prior start this season.
Since missing the Tampa Bay Derby with a slight ankle strain, McCraken hasn't missed a beat with his workouts, turning in another professional half-mile drill in :49 2/5 at Keeneland on April 2. Trainer Ian Wilkes says he's isn't putting pressure on himself or his horse to emerge this weekend still unbeaten, but he will not downplay how key it is for the son of Ghostzapper get something out of what will be just his second start since taking the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs Nov. 26.
"I want to get a good race into this horse, I think he needs it," Wilkes said. "It doesn't mean that I have to win it ... though I would absolutely love to win the Blue Grass. But I want him to get something out of it and be moving in the right direction."
The two leading contenders are familiar with each other, but they must contend with a couple other sophomores on whom the jury is still out.
Practical Joke was an Eclipse Award finalist for champion 2-year-old male off the strength of his victories in the Hopeful (G1) and Champagne (G1) stakes last year. In his two attempts at 1 1/16 miles, however, the son of Into Mischief has made moves that have fallen short, running third in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and finishing a well-beaten second during his seasonal bow in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) March 4.
"I think we're seeing a fitter horse now after having a race under his belt," said Chad Brown, trainer of Practical Joke. "I realize there are still some question marks on how far he ultimately wants to go, and I think that's fair. His two two-turn races, he didn't sustain his run in the stretch, but I feel like he did have some legitimate excuses in both starts.
"I think in the Fountain of Youth, he hadn't run since the Breeders' Cup ... he looked like a tired horse in the lane to me, but he still showed a lot of heart to run second. But I don't see any excuses for him here."
Dale Romans trainee J Boys Echo has been steadily on the improve, running fourth in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (G3) and third in the Withers Stakes (G3) prior to his breakout score in the grade 3 Gotham Stakes March 4. The quality of who the son of Mineshaft defeated that day is suspect, but he has been another project that only recently got his mental game to catch up to his physical progress.
"He's just been a little slow mentally to come around," said Steve Castagnola, bloodstock manager for owner Albaugh Family Stable. "We knew the talent was there, it was just getting him to put it together in the afternoons. He basically could just be a little lazy and in the mornings only does what he has to do. He'll work as slow as he wants, but as fast as you'll ask him to. As long as he's winning, we'll let him do what he wants to do right now."
For more on the connections of this year’s Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and Ashland Stakes (G1) runners, click here.
Keeneland, Saturday, April 08, 2017, Race 10
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1It's Your Nickel (KY) James Graham 123 Kenneth G. McPeek 20/1 2 2McCraken (KY) Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr. 123 Ian R. Wilkes 7/5 3 3J Boys Echo (KY) Robby Albarado 123 Dale L. Romans 4/1 4 4Tapwrit (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 123 Todd A. Pletcher 5/2 5 5Wild Shot (KY) Corey J. Lanerie 123 George R. Arnold, II 15/1 6 6Irap (KY) Julien R. Leparoux 123 Doug F. O'Neill 20/1 7 7Practical Joke (KY) Joel Rosario 123 Chad C. Brown 7/2
Keeneland, Saturday, April 08, 2017, Race 10