Remembering the 2004 Wood Memorial: Before Tapit was Tapit | NYRA
Apr 4, 2024
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Remembering the 2004 Wood Memorial: Before Tapit was Tapit

by Christian Abdo

With progeny of Tapit capturing 56 Grade 1s along with nine Eclipse Awards, and counting, it could be easy to overlook Tapit’s glory on the racetrack. However, Tapit’s courageous, resilient, even shocking victory when rallying from last-of-11 in the 2004 Wood Memorial paved the way for him to blossom into the star he has become over the last 20 years.

On Saturday, a field of 13 will line up in the Grade 2, $750,000 Wood Memorial presented by Resorts World Casino. The nine-furlong test for 3-year-olds offers 100-50-25-15-10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top-five finishers. While Tapit will not sire his third Wood Memorial winner to go along with Frosted [2015] and Tacitus [2019], he is the grandsire of contenders Deposition and Gettysburg Address.

One of the last horses purchased by the late Verne Winchell, along with his son Ron through David Fiske, current Winchell Thoroughbreds racing manager, Tapit was a special horse from the start. The Pulpit gray - the first foal produced from the stakes-winning Unbridled mare Tap Your Heels - came highly recommended by veterinarian Dr. David Lambert before the 2002 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.

Trained by Michael Dickinson, the $625,000 purchase won his debut by 7 3/4-lengths as a juvenile in October 2003 at Delaware Park before showcasing his potential one month later in the Grade 3 Laurel Futurity where he effortlessly surged by the field in the stretch to pass his first two-turn test under future Hall of Famer Ramon Dominguez.

“He showed he was a very talented horse. The Laurel Futurity was extremely impressive, but after he was going to have to step up in class,” said Dominguez.

Tapit made his sophomore debut on the Kentucky Derby trail in the Grade 1 Florida Derby in March 2004 at Gulfstream Park, making minimal impact going the nine furlongs to finish a distant sixth under Hall of Famer Edgar Prado in a result later attributed to a lung infection.

Tapit was among the future book favorites for the Derby after his juvenile season but was still recuperating from the lung infection as the first Saturday in May quickly approached.

“After breaking his maiden, he was very highly touted and Michael thought the world of him, but after how he did in Florida, he suggested we just train him up to the Derby,” said Fiske. “Ron said, ‘We are going to need another race,’ and Michael said ‘Well, how about the Wood Memorial?’

“I don’t know what we were expecting, but I am positive it wasn’t to win.”

Ultrasounds on the Wednesday before the race showed Tapit’s lungs had returned to normal function, but the team was convinced there wasn’t enough time to get him into peak condition for the Wood.

In the buildup to the race, Dickinson told the BloodHorse, “We're never going to be in the race; we're just going to come late and easy and hope to get third. I've already told the owner he's not fit, but he will be on Derby Day."

Conditions for the then Grade 1 Wood Memorial on April 10, 2004, were exemplary with clear skies and temperatures just above 60 degrees.

The field featured Value Plus, the Florida Derby-runner up trained by future Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, who was favored at 2.85-1. Eddington, conditioned by Mark Hennig, was second choice on the board at 3-1 after a third in the Grade 3 Gotham but already boasting a 101 Beyer Speed Figure on his resume. Master David, trained by Hall of Famer Robert Frankel, was close in price at just above 3-1 after winning the Sham at Santa Anita Park and placing in the Grade 2 Remsen in his first start stateside.

Seven other talented colts made up the field: Sinister G, Swingforthefences, Royal Assault, Little Matth Man, Cuba, Consecrate, and Hornshope.

With 5-of-7 races before the Wood Memorial won by pacesetters, speculation of a possible speed bias arose, presenting additional adversity for the late-running Tapit.

Tapit, exiting post 2 at odds of 5-1, broke slowest of all with Dominguez back aboard and trailed in last-of-11, 10 lengths back of the early leader, Grade 2-winner Sinister G, who marked an opening quarter-mile of 23.74 seconds over the fast footing.

Excitement among Tapit’s connections quickly evaporated as their colt’s chances seemed to dwindle before the first turn, yet Dominguez remained hopeful.

“If I broke sharp, I’d have to be negotiating and trying to get him to relax, which takes a lot out of them,” Dominguez recalled. “He was a young horse that could be his own worst enemy, so I was biding time.”

After a half-mile in 47.12, Tapit was still 9 1/4-lengths back in ninth with serious ground to make up. Prior to any cue from his jockey, Tapit started to glide by foes down the backside, rapidly gaining on the grouping of Master David, Eddington, Cuba and Swingforthefences, who were led into the turn by Value Plus.

“There was a pivotal moment around the three-eighths pole when I was saving ground,” recalled Dominguez. “Swingforthefences came out looking for the clear and pushed me out. The last thing you want to do with three-eighths to go is get in really behind horses.”

With one furlong to go, Dominguez guided Tapit to the outside, setting his sights on a tiring Swingforthefences. Master David and Eddington inherited the lead at the rail as Value Plus and Swingforthefences faded, setting up a three-horse finish with Tapit charging down the center of the course.

“I felt like if I had kept him in the clear throughout the turn, it was just going to take too much out of him,” Dominguez said. “Then in the stretch, I had the moment, of ‘Let’s go for it.’”

When the trio hit the wire, there was nearly half a gray in front, in a final time of 1:49.70. Master David nosed out Eddington for place honors.

“It seemed a lot closer live, but even if it was actually a half-length, that is not even one-fifth of a second, and that changed history. He would not have become the horse everyone knows at the moment. It is a weird game,” Fiske said, with a laugh.

That fraction of a second also helped mark the second Grade 1 win for Dominguez and his first in New York.

“We had the Wood Memorial, and now a horse with a good chance going to the Kentucky Derby. It was an amazing moment career-wise because at that time, I wasn’t winning Grade 1s,” said Dominguez, who won 44 Grade 1s in a career that earned a first-ballot induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2016.

After the race, Dickinson, expressed his surprise at Tapit’s courageous score to the New York Times, “We were not at our peak today…I'd have been over the moon to be third. That was all I was expecting and all I could hope for.''

Tapit once again broke slowly in the Kentucky Derby, but the deficit was insurmountable that day, resulting in a ninth-place finish to the victorious Smarty Jones. Tapit would enter the starting gate one last time in that September’s Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby at Philadelphia Park, finishing ninth.

“The Wood Memorial gave him the credibility to go to the breeding shed. He never would’ve gone without that Grade 1,” Fiske said. “He’s now probably the most influential sire of the first quarter of the century, this is how history turns on you.”

Tapit started his tenure at Gainesway in 2005 standing for $15,000. He was the leading first-crop sire when his first foals became of racing age in 2008, led by Champion 2-Year-Old Filly Stardom Bound.

In 2011, Tapit made his presence known on the general sires list when finishing third, highlighted by a Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile score by Hansen, who received year-end honors as Champion Two-Year-Old Colt.

“If you asked me before the Wood, ‘Do you think he will be the sire he is today?’ I would have never thought that,” said Dominguez. “Never in my wildest of dreams.”

Tapit has since emerged as the multiple-time leading North American sire in 2014, 2015, and 2016, while also producing champions Stardom Bound [2008], Hansen [2011], Untapable [2014], Unique Bella [2017, 18], Essential Quality [2020, 21], and Horse of the Year Flightline [2022, also top Older Dirt Male].

He has sired four American Classic winners, all in the Belmont Stakes: Tonalist [2014], Creator [2016], Tapwrit [2017], and Essential Quality [2021].

But those that know Tapit best credit a remarkable performance in Ozone Park, N.Y., as the gateway to a remarkable career at stud.

“If not for that win in the Wood, he would not have become the Tapit that everyone knows at the moment,” said Fiske.

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