Maryland's Tapit gets well with Wood victory

Questions of health settled as he earns Derby berth

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

NEW YORK - Michael Dickinson dreaded running Tapit in the Wood Memorial Stakes yesterday at Aqueduct.

Dickinson, who trains at his farm in Cecil County, knew the horse had just gotten over a sickness and wasn't completely fit. The best he hoped for was third and a chance to improve the colt's health and fitness over the next three weeks for the Kentucky Derby.

Overcoming his trainer's doubts, Tapit rallied from last place to win the $750,000 Wood Memorial and ensure his place among the favorites in the nation's most prestigious race May 1 at Churchill Downs.

"He was not in perfect health," Dickinson said of Tapit, a strikingly handsome gray son of Pulpit. "He was not in perfect fitness. I knew he wasn't at his peak. I would have been over the moon to be third.

"He's very courageous, and I was wrong. I underestimated how healthy and fit he might be. I'm very indebted to him, because he carried me through."

Tears welled in Dickinson's eyes. He seemed more stunned than happy.

Years ago, reporters nicknamed him the "Mad Genius" because of his sometimes-eccentric training methods and surprising victories in big races. Dickinson seems to enjoy the label, but he also seems to understand that it's all in fun.

Asked why Tapit's victory made him so emotional, Dickinson said the horse is always perky, that nothing ever gets him down, that he admires his spunk and that, finally, "because he, not the trainer, won the race."

Competing before a crowd of 17,354 at Aqueduct, Tapit joined The Cliff's Edge, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, and Smarty Jones, winner of the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, as horses headed to the Derby with chances of being favored.

Their victories began to clarify the 3-year-old division that until yesterday had been a blur of long shots winning and favorites faltering.

Tapit paid $12.60 to win as the fourth favorite in a field of 11. And to win, Tapit had to pass every other horse in the race.

Ramon Dominguez, his jockey from Maryland, allowed Tapit to settle in last as Value Plus, the 5-2 favorite, and Sinister G led the field around the first turn into the backstretch.

Dominguez, who rode Tapit to victory last fall in the Laurel Futurity, had always said Tapit's greatest asset was his stamina. Before this race, he was more confident than Dickinson was.

"Ramon has tremendous confidence in this horse," Dickinson said. "He thought he would win."

Dominguez rode Tapit with that confidence. Approaching the final turn, he slowly moved outside and began passing horses, one by one. Always the farthest from the rail, Tapit loomed as a contender around the far turn.

Value Plus and Sinister G had given way to the second wave: Swingforthefences, Master David and Eddington. In pursuit of the new front-runners down the stretch, Tapit ran a bit unsteadily but kept gaining.

His gray coat covered with mud, he secured the lead a few strides before the wire and, with Dominguez easing up, finished a half-length ahead of Master David. Eddington claimed third, a nose back, and Swingforthefences clung to fourth.

Completing the order of finish were Royal Assault, Value Plus, Little Matth Man, Cuba, Consecrate, Sinister G and Hornshope.

Tapit completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute, 49.70 seconds. He headed a $66.50 exacta, $223.50 trifecta and $1,317 superfecta.

"He did it smoothly," Dominguez said. "He made me feel like he wasn't all-out by any means."

The Wood was Tapit's fourth race. He won both starts last year, the first a 7 3/4 -length victory at Delaware Park, the second an impressive score in the Laurel Futurity after being boxed in most of the race.

Training in Florida for his 3-year-old debut, he developed shin problems, and Dickinson brought him home to Tapeta Farm in North East.

Tapit raced in the Florida Derby four weeks ago without what Dickinson considered proper preparation, and he finished a lackluster sixth.

Dickinson brought him back to Maryland again and discovered a "pretty significant" infection in his lungs.

Doubting his fitness and recovery, he started him in the Wood, anyway, hoping for third, a berth in the Kentucky classic and a chance, finally, to get him 100 percent fit.

Dickinson has never started a horse in a Triple Crown race. He'll get his chance with a beautiful, talented and courageous horse who is short on experience.

Dickinson will hear many times these next three weeks that the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby in his fifth start was Exterminator in 1918.

NOTE: Also at Aqueduct, Pico Central won the Grade I $350,000 Carter Handicap by 1 1/4 lengths over the heavily favored Strong Hope, and Forest Danger dominated the Grade III, $150,000 Bay Shore Stakes, winning by 7 1/2 lengths over the Laurel-based Abbondanza.

Final Derby preps

Winners of yesterday's last three major prep races for the Kentucky Derby on May 1:

Race Winner

Arkansas Derby Smarty Jones

Blue Grass Stakes The Cliff's Edge

Wood Memorial Tapit

More coverage, 15-16E

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