Jonathan Thomas, George Isaacs, John Panagot and Aron Wellman gathered at the back of the sales pavilion, just as the opening session of the 2015 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga yearling sale inched past the one-hour mark. They were in good spirits after pooling resources to buy a colt by one of the world’s leading sires, maybe even giddy, or at least as giddy as one could be after signing a ticket for $1.2 million.
They’ve been together at various times since, at the races or other sales, and gathered again in the basement of Belmont Park last Saturday when that same colt put them in the winner’s circle for the 149th Belmont Stakes. The group, joined by Panagot’s boss and owner Robert LaPenta, were not so much giddy this time around but exuding a sense of satisfaction and even a little redemption after Tapwrit got the better of Irish War Cry in the final sixteenth of the Belmont to close the 2017 Triple Crown.
Todd Pletcher was there, too, after sending out his third Belmont winner since 2007 and becoming the first trainer to win two-thirds of the Triple Crown with two horses since D. Wayne Lukas did it in 1996. Jose Ortiz, who rode his first classic winner, wasn’t on hand since he honored calls in the day’s final two races in a fitting testament to the young jockey’s strong work ethic.
The original group talked about buying a colt with all the tools to compete in the spring classics – pedigree, class, athleticism – and it was impossible not to look back on that August night in Saratoga following Tapwrit’s 2-length victory over Irish War Cry.
“This is what we bought this horse for, to try to win a classic,” said Wellman, who heads up Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners. “To be able to execute that game plan, an ambitious game plan … we couldn’t have drawn it up any better. I think we all had a very clear vision of how this race was going to be run today, and it was just a matter of execution.”
The plan for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont – to treat it almost like a turf race, keep Tapwrit covered up and behind the early speed before producing him for a late burst in the stretch – started as the field started to assemble for the $1.5 million classic. The absences of Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Preakness Stakes winner Cloud Computing and champion 2-year-old Classic Empire made the race look fairly competitive on paper. Tapwrit, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby and a better-than-it-looked sixth in the Kentucky Derby, was among the top contenders of the paid crowd of 57,729 and millions more watching from home.
The real plan to get Tapwrit to the winner’s circle covered in a blanket of carnations was born even before that night at the Saratoga sale, as the partners came together in the Fasig-Tipton barn area during their presale inspections.
“This was a team effort from the start,” said Thomas, the farm trainer at John and Leslie Malone’s Bridlewood Farm in Florida. “That’s what makes it special. We all basically ran into each other (before the sale), loved this horse and figured out a way to get him bought, and luckily Mr. LaPenta came in and we had the ammunition to get it done.”
Tapwrit, at the time known as the Tapit colt selling as Hip 34 out of Craig and Holly Bandoroff’s Denali Stud consignment, attracted plenty of buzz leading up to the sale. By Tapit, who to that point had collected the first of his three straight titles atop North America’s general sire list in 2014 along with a first-crop sire title in 2008, the colt was out of the Grade 1-winning Successful Appeal mare Appealing Zophie.
Isaacs, the longtime general manager at Bridlewood under the Malones and former owner Arthur Appleton, said then that the colt had “everything we’re looking for. He looks fast, he’s by the No. 1 stallion in America out of a great mare that could really run, looks precocious, definitely has plenty of pedigree.”
The pooling of the group’s resources definitely played a role in the purchase. Isaacs handled the bidding in a seat between Malone and Thomas, with Wellman and Panagot, LaPenta’s racing manager, across the aisle. The bidding quickly reached $500,000 on $100,000 increments. Isaacs matched $100,000 bids late in the proceedings and continued to be bullish as the price reached $1 million, amidst the predictable gasps from the large crowd of buyers, racing folks, locals and tourists who gather in and around the pavilion on sale night. After the bidding reached seven figures Isaacs countered with a $1.2 million bid and it was over.
The partnership was born from a prior business relationship – Eclipse Thoroughbreds and LaPenta send their young horses to Bridlewood to be broken and trained by Thomas. Isaacs called it a “nice easy partnership” and Wellman said it was a “healthy partnership.”
“Rather than butt heads against each other we can all have fun together,” Wellman said at the time. “We’re all friends and we have similar goals in the game. When it comes to buying a colt like this there’s definitely power in numbers. It’s a healthy partnership and we’re thrilled to have the colt. Let’s just hope he lives up to the hype.”
Tapwrit lived up to the hype, just not right away.
Thomas, a former assistant to Pletcher who grew up in Virginia and rode steeplechase races for Jack Fisher among others in 1999 and 2000, got started with Tapwrit shortly after he arrived at Bridlewood in Ocala from Saratoga. The colt’s physical presence caught Thomas’ eye during early training, just as it had when he and Isaacs looked at him in the Denali consignment. The colt’s mental presence was a slightly different story.
“Physically he continued to develop, which is what you hope happens. If you’re buying a finished product that’s when you get into trouble,” Thomas said. “Typical of a Tapit, he was a little slow to come around. Physically he was always gifted but mentally it took him a while. If you even look at him now he’s just developing into a racehorse.”
Tapwrit stayed at Bridlewood through the winter of 2016 and nearly all of the spring before he was shipped to Pletcher’s string at Saratoga Race Course’s Oklahoma Training Track in June. He turned in his first breeze – an easy 3 furlongs in :37.66 – July 1 on the Oklahoma track. After six works on the main track and two on the Oklahoma, Pletcher entered Tapwrit in a 7-furlong maiden race Sept. 3, the final Saturday of the 2016 meeting.
Sent to the post as the 5-1 third choice in the field of 10, Tapwrit acted up a bit behind the gate and after Javier Castellano jumped off the gray colt needed a blindfold and a half-dozen assistant starters to be coerced into the starting gate. He broke well and raced fourth up the backstretch and into the far turn. Castellano asked for a bit more run approaching the quarter pole, cracked him once right handed and received no response as the field led by Unbridled Eagle, Westwood and Altito went one way and Tapwrit went the other.
Pletcher said he was surprised at the Tapwrit’s debut, beaten 18 1/4 lengths and last of 10.
“We probably interfered a little bit too much because of the high price tag leading up to his debut,” Wellman said. “To say that that’s how we drew it up, running dead last at Saratoga the first time out, probably wouldn’t be true. After that we turned it over to Todd and let him do what he does best, which is train racehorses.”
Bred by My Meadowview Farm, Tapwrit stayed at Saratoga in the fall under the watch of Pletcher assistant Tristan Berry, breezing four more times before being shipped to Palm Beach Downs in late October.
Tapwrit turned the corner in Florida and broke his maiden going 1 mile at Gulfstream Park West, the former Calder Race Course, the day after eventual Belmont rivals Gormley and Lookin At Lee along with other top members of his generation ran in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park. Tapwrit added another victory, in the slop in the off-the-turf Pulpit Stakes, a month later and got his connections thinking about the classics.
Eddie Castro rode Tapwrit in his two victories but the team lined up Ortiz for the start of his 3-year-old campaign in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs. LaPenta acknowledged Castro in his post-race remarks, saying the veteran jockey was “instrumental in” Tapwrit’s development. He said the decision to hire Ortiz, North America’s leading jockey by wins and third by earnings in 2016, was unanimous.
Tapwrit finished second in the Davis, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths by leading Kentucky Derby contender McCraken. That effort earned a return trip to Tampa and, with McCraken on the sidelines with an ankle strain, Tapwrit turned in his most professional effort to that point with a 4 1/2-length victory over State Of Honor.
The next two starts – the Grade 2 Blue Grass at Keeneland and Kentucky Derby – didn’t produce results Tapwrit’s ownership group hoped for but he was not without an excuse. In the Blue Grass, Tapwrit’s head was cocked to the right at the break and he was shuffled back early before going wide into the first turn. He eventually finished fifth, beaten 11 1/2 lengths by the maiden Irap. Tapwrit earned enough points in his Tampa races to earn a spot in the Derby field – and since that’s why he was purchased – his connections went on to Louisville.
Initially one of six horses under consideration from the Pletcher barn, Tapwrit wound up starting the opening jewel of the Triple Crown with Always Dreaming and Patch. Battalion Runner and Malagacy were withdrawn from consideration and Master Plan failed to draw in off the also-eligible list when a full field of 20 faced the starter.
Heavy rains before the Derby left the track sloppy and Tapwrit, like several others in the field, endured a somewhat troubled start that compromised his chances and he wound up sixth, beaten 10 1/4 lengths by Always Dreaming.
Pletcher felt the effort at Churchill was a “sneaky good race,” bypassed the Preakness while he tried to stay alive for the Triple Crown sweep with Always Dreaming and pointed Tapwrit for the Belmont.
“There’s a lot made about the trouble at the start,” Pletcher said. “He got as much of that as anyone. Unfortunately at the post-position draw, we also thought, ‘man, we drew perfect, 16 is a great spot,’ it’s been over the last decade or 20 years the most successful post position. It turned out it was the worst position because Irish War Cry took a left leaving there and then it was a chain reaction from there.
“Despite that he ran on pretty well. He was still close at the end of the Derby and we felt like right after that five weeks and coming into the Belmont, preparing for the Belmont Stakes was going to be the right move.”
The initial field for the Belmont looked small, then swelled a bit when Always Dreaming and Preakness winner Cloud Computing were withdrawn from consideration. Preakness runner-up Classic Empire inherited the favorite’s role before he was withdrawn when a foot abscess that bothered the Pioneerof The Nile colt in the winter resurfaced.
Irish War Cry, 10th in the Derby and initially on the bench waiting for the Haskell Invitational this summer, entered the fray after a solid few weeks at the Fair Hill Training Center and was pegged as the favorite for trainer Graham Motion. The betting for the Belmont was fairly even – after Irish War Cry was bet down to 5-2 and Japanese invader Epicharis was scratched due to lameness, five horses went off between 5-1 and 9-1.
Motion didn’t expect Irish War Cry to be on the lead in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont but with Classic Empire out of the race and other circumstances after the break – a slight hesitation by Gormley and Mike Smith keeping Meantime in more of a rating position while wide – the son of Curlin and Rajiv Maragh were on the lead through the opening fractions of :23.88 and :48.66. Meantime and Irish War Cry raced side-by-side through those early splits.
Ortiz set up shop right behind those two in a perfect spot with cover to his outside from Gormley, Patch and J Boys Echo. Irish War Cry still led through 6 furlongs in 1:14.01 and 1 mile in 1:38.95. Tapwrit was fourth entering the far turn while Meantime took a failed run at the leader and Gormley and Victor Espinoza tried to challenge from the outside. Ortiz stayed patient down on the inside, riding the marathon dirt race like he would a two-turn grass race and knowing the last move would win and not the first.
“It didn’t set up the way we thought it might, I actually thought somebody else would go to the lead,” Motion said as he watched the replay in the tunnel after the race. “Rajiv did the right thing, they went slow, but no excuses. We really thought we’d have a tracking trip, that there were more horses that would go out there.”
Irish War Cry opened up when he turned for home and it was a two-horse race with Tapwrit advancing and the rest of the field backpedaling. Irish War Cry still led at the eighth pole before Tapwrit and Ortiz pulled alongside and eventually wrested a short lead at the sixteenth pole. Their momentum carried them in the final yards and the final margin was 2 lengths. The one-eyed Patch, Tapwrit’s stablemate and a popular colt on the Triple Crown trail, ran on well to finish 5 3/4 lengths behind in third with Gormley fourth. The winning time was 2:30.02, a full second faster than War Story won the Grade 2 Brooklyn Invitational the same day but only better than six Belmonts in the last 30 years.
None of that mattered to Tapwrit’s connections, however, who were ready to celebrate once the press conference was complete. More than a few in the crowd said, “now it’s time to party” as they made their way through the basement halls of Belmont and the crowd caught the last two races or spilled out into the parking lots above.
Before Thomas hit the exit he allowed one more analysis of the colt bought nearly two years before, by a group that pooled its resources to avoid butting heads against some of the most deep-pocketed buyers in the world, who lived up to his potential and joined only A.P. Indy, Fusaichi Pegasus and Rags To Riches as seven-figure yearlings who won an American classic.
“He’s progressed quite a bit. He’s always been an athletically gifted horse and you hope they have the mental fortitude to transition into a top-shelf racehorse,” he said. “And honestly he’s by the best sire in the country out of a Grade 1 winner and he just won a Grade 1. He might have the best pedigree of any 3-year-old running. We’re excited for this and excited for the future.”