Show would be a `go' for Tapit

Third place in Florida is the goal for lagging 3-year-old, says trainer

Horse Racing

March 11, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE, Fla. - Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali guaranteed victory. Yesterday, trainer Michael Dickinson predicted ... third place.

After his Tapit joined nine others in the field for the $1 million Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, the Maryland-based Dickinson said: "If he finished third, I'd be delighted."

Tapit has raced only twice, winning each time. But he hasn't raced since Nov. 15, when he gained national attention with a sensational victory in the Laurel Futurity. Trapped inside horses most of the race, Tapit barged to the outside down the stretch and stormed to a 4 3/4 -length victory. That earned a gold star among horses to watch for the Kentucky Derby.

The gray, handsome Tapit spent most of the winter at Dickinson's Tapeta Farm in Cecil County. In January, Dickinson sent him to South Florida to begin intensive training for his 3-year-old debut. But Tapit developed shin problems and returned to Maryland.

At least one race behind, the son of Pulpit will attempt to catch up to his more seasoned opponents in a race that's annually a key producer of winners of Triple Crown races. He'll also attempt to make history: No horse has won a Florida Derby, and there have been 52, without a prep race.

Renowned for success with older horses, Dickinson has never entered a horse in a Triple Crown race. He has prepared horses such as Da Hoss and A Huevo for major victories after long but, he said, on his timetable.

The Kentucky Derby forces trainers to push even the healthiest horses through rigorous and risky training regimens. Dickinson lost 19 days of training with Tapit because of the shin problem and winter weather. He's behind and knows it.

"We're on target for May 1 but not on target for March 13," Dickinson said, referring to the dates of the Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby.

He probably would prefer a softer spot for Tapit's seasonal debut, but Ron Winchell, Tapit's owner, and Winchell's racing manager, David Fiske, opted for the more challenging race.

Fiske said it's time to find out where they stand with Tapit. Dickinson said he doesn't need a Grade I race to find that out. He said Tapit is good enough to win the Florida Derby but not fit enough.

Asked what he hopes for Tapit in the race, Dickinson said: "I want him to relax early, and I want him to be finishing at the end. I want a healthy, happy, sound horse when it's over so we can go forward. ...

"He's 2-for-2. He's been visually impressive. He's exciting. But he's still got a lot to prove."

Asked whether he'd be shocked if Tapit won, Dickinson paused several seconds before saying no. For that to happen, he said, Read the Footnotes would have to regress after his last race, and Value Plus would have to find that 1 1/8 miles is beyond his scope.

Both are possible. Read the Footnotes, the 7-5 morning-line favorite, will be making his first start since a grueling stretch duel Feb. 14 with Second of June in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream. Read the Footnotes won - for the fifth time in six races - but he might have drained his reserves.

Value Plus, a $1.1 million yearling, won his 3-year-old debut last month at Gulfstream by a sizzling 5 3/4 lengths. But that was an allowance event at seven furlongs. Value Plus' other victory came at 6 1/2 furlongs.

Rick Violette, who trains Read the Footnotes, said Value Plus is his main competition in the Florida Derby.

Asked about Tapit, Violette replied: "He's a dangerous horse just because of Michael Dickinson. And he's certainly behind schedule, a little bit behind the eight ball. ... He's either going to move forward and be a terrific horse, or he might be the country's most overrated horse."

Florida Derby field

PP Horse Trainer Jockey Odds

1 The Cliff's Edge Nick Zito Shane Sellers 12-1

2 Friends Lake John Kimmel Richard Migliore 15-1

3 Read the Footnotes Rick Violette Jerry Bailey 7-5

4 Tapit Michael Dickinson Edgar Prado 5-1

5 Farnum Valley Tony Reinstedler Pat Day 20-1

6 Sir Oscar Marty Wolfson Julio Garcia 8-1

7 Notorious Rogue Mark Hennig Joe Bravo 20-1

8 Value Plus Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 3-1

9 Frisky Spider Robert Durso Eddie King Jr. 20-1

10 Smoocher David Bell Jose Santos 12-1

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