NEW YORK - The gray colt in the hands of Michael Dickinson, "Mad Genius" of Tapeta Farm, has come full circle.
Tapit has gone from neophyte brimming with promise, to afterthought to contender, with an explosive late run on Saturday that carried him to a narrow victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. It's a large and compelling piece of a Kentucky Derby puzzle still hopelessly scattered after the last three 1 1/8 -mile prep races that are intended to finally separate the wheat from chaff.
In Hot Springs, an unbeaten Pennsylvania-bred named Smarty Jones, the flower of blue-collar roots and beneath-the-radar connections, established himself as a force in the Arkansas Derby while winning over few skeptics. In Lexington, Ky., The Cliff's Edge ran down a laboring Lion Heart in the Keeneland stretch to sustain the withered hopes of trainer Nick Zito, who has seen both Eurosilver and Birdstone sidelined by illness. If nothing was really settled on Saturday, at least the plot was thickened.
The Triple Crown rankings also gained some clarity after a week in which all five panelists voted for a different horse for first place. Going into the final weeks before the Kentucky Derby , the panel put The Cliff's Edge first, followed by Tapit, Smarty Jones, Master David and Friends Lake.
Tapit's Wood Memorial win introduces a colorful element. The eccentric Dickinson, while training steeplechase horses in his native England, once saddled the first five finishers in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He won the Breeders' Cup Mile with Da Hoss in 1996 and, two years later with only one race in the interim, won the same race with the same horse. He trains at Tapeta Farm, in the Maryland countryside on the north end of the Chesapeake Bay, exercising his horses over uphill gallops and a track made of wood chips.
Tapit, who has run only twice this year and overcome a severe lung infection, would be the first Derby winner with fewer than three starts as a 3-year-old entering the Triple Crown since Sunny's Halo in 1983, but in the hands of Dickinson, who has never run a horse in the Kentucky Derby, anything seems possible.
Separating the prominent 3-year-olds who have risen to the upper tier of this week's poll in terms of speed and pace will be difficult. They are moving toward Louisville at about the same speed, and, with the exception of the tactically blessed Smarty Jones, have similar, off-the-pace running styles.
A week after Castledale upset the Santa Anita Derby while running nine furlongs in 1:49 1/5, Tapit won the Wood in 1 minute, 49 3/5 seconds. Both The Cliff's Edge and Smarty Jones, the latter running over a track labeled sloppy, were timed in 1:49 2/5.
Speed and pace handicappers are already embroiled in dissecting these performances based upon the often subjective nuances of the various surfaces, but attempting to separate these horses based upon their nine-furlong form will be no more conclusive than the raw data. The Wood illustrated the narrow margin for error.
"We felt he had to run third or better to get enough graded earnings to go to the Derby," David Fiske, manager of the Winchell Racing Stable, which owns Tapit, said yesterday. "He ran a big race, but something like a tenth of a second separated him from fourth. So we made it, but we barely made it."
While almost all Derby winners are given their final preps in nine-furlong races, Charismatic won the 1999 Derby after having won the 1 1/16-mile Lexington, which will be run Saturday at Keeneland. Minister Eric, Saratoga County, Pomeroy and Quinton's Gold Rush face what is likely a make-or-break afternoon.
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