Just a few weeks ago, it seemed a good possibility that Belmont Stakes (G1) week would be the backdrop for one huge New York City block party. Vinnie Viola and Anthony Bonomo, the majority owners of Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) winner Always Dreaming, hail from Brooklyn, and most of that borough looked ready to turn up at Belmont Park June 10 for a possible run at the Triple Crown.
Then the Preakness Stakes (G1) happened, and Always Dreaming became an afterthought as far as the third leg of the Triple Crown goes. But the Belmont Stakes doesn’t completely lack for New York connections, not as long as Robert LaPenta is part of the show.
LaPenta, a co-owner of Tapwrit, winner of the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (G2), was raised in Yonkers and went to college at Iona College, both in the greater New York metropolitan area. And he’s experienced at winning the Belmont Stakes, which he did nine years ago as the owner of 38-1 shocker Da' Tara.
LaPenta today lives in Connecticut, part of the Tri-State area, but comes with impeccable credentials to his place in horse racing. His mother was a huge fan of the sport, and LaPenta tells the story of her turning 80, and LaPenta offering her a trip to Italy to celebrate.
“No, just take me to the track,” his mother responded.
LaPenta has campaigned a series of top runners, from Florida Derby (G1) winners Dialed In and Ice Box , The Cliff's Edge, War Pass, Cool Coal Man, Andromeda's Hero, Jackson Bend, Pies Prospect, and Whitmore (as co-owner of the grade 2 True North Stakes hopeful) to name a few. He owns Tapwrit in partnership with Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Bridlewood Farm, and Whitmore in a partnership that includes Sol Kumin.
“The world has changed,” said LaPenta. “You go to these sales and everybody is in a partnership and they’re bidding these horses up to astronomical prices. If you can find good partners, it makes sense in this environment. I don’t own oil wells. It’s all my personal money, and when you spend that kind of money with a 90% chance of it disappearing … you go look for an oil well.”
LaPenta, who became a certified public accountant out of college, left that field to take a job with aerospace and defense industry giant Lockheed Martin. He subsequently formed his own companies, including L-3 Communications and L-1 Identity Solutions, which work in homeland security, big data, and counter-terrorism. He also has founded Revolution Lighting, a green technology company working with light-emitting diodes.
“You have to stay active,” said LaPenta, “and I have to make money to buy these horses.”
LaPenta, in addition to his partnerships, still buys horses on his own, and has also entered the broodmare market, purchasing mates for last year’s leading first-crop sire Dialed In, in whom he still owns an interest. Dial One, a LaPenta homebred, scored by four lengths May 20 in a five-furlong turf test at Gulfstream Park in his initial start.
Tapwrit has been somewhat of an enigma, running brilliant races intermittently while throwing in a clunker or two. A $1.2 million sale purchase for the partnership, he ran an undistinguished race in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and then got caught in a game of bumper cars early in the Derby, in which he nevertheless rallied to finish sixth.
“We got hammered in the Derby at least as much as Classic Empire,” said LaPenta, “and I thought Tapwrit ran a very courageous race, a sneaky good performance. So we’re feeling good about him in the Belmont. We think he’s going to be a player.”
LaPenta won’t be intimidated by anyone in the race, that’s for sure. After all, Big Brown was supposed to be unbeatable going into the 2008 edition of the Belmont.
“I told my wife that morning that I don’t know if we can beat Big Brown, but I felt we were going to run second,” LaPenta said. “Another owner in the race, who shall remain nameless, told me my horse would be rounding the far turn while his was crossing the finish line. After the race I walked up to him and said, ‘What do you think about that?’
“It’s a crazy game. There are lots of ups and 10 times as many downs. You can’t get your hopes too high or get too low. My goals are still to win the Derby and Travers. We should have won the Derby with Ice Box, who got a brutal trip. My favorite horse is still The Cliff’s Edge, who had to run the Travers in that terrible rainstorm in the slop when he lost to Birdstone. It would be nice to bookend another Belmont, too.”
Which would give the race a decidedly New York flavor after all.