03/15/2014 7:41PM

Sparkman: Connections' hats back in the ring with Ring Weekend

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Tom Keyser
Ring Weekend, a son of Tapit, captured the Tampa Bay Derby.

When Wall Street executive Vincent Viola and his wife, Teresa, decided to get back into Thoroughbred racing in 2011, they turned to Terry Finley, president of West Point Thoroughbreds, for help. Both Finley and Vinny Viola are graduates of the United States Military Academy, and, during a 10-year hiatus from horse racing after dabbling in the game in the late 1990s, Viola had observed Finley’s series of Grade 1 winners that raced in the West Point Thoroughbreds silks.

The Violas’ ultimate goal was to build a small, high-quality broodmare band, so Finley asked the author to consult with the Violas on pedigrees, since I had done some past pedigree work for West Point. That first year, the Violas bought a couple of well-bred fillies who are now fledgling broodmares, and they also became partners with West Point and B. Wayne Hughes on a beautiful chestnut Malibu Moon ridgling. That ridgling won the 2013 Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes under the name of Freedom Child and is now standing his first season at Country Life Farm in Maryland.

One of the highlights of the Violas’ second visit to the Keeneland September sale, in 2012, was the purchase for $310,000 of another beautiful chestnut, a colt by Tapit out of Free the Magic, by Cryptoclearance. Now a gelding, Ring Weekend last weekend won the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby for the partnership of the Violas’ St. Elias Stable and West Point Thoroughbreds.

A tall, correct horse from the lengthy, athletic mold we have come to expect of Tapit, Ring Weekend was bred in Kentucky by Gainesway Thoroughbreds. He is the sixth foal, sixth winner, and first stakes winner out of Free the Magic, whose second foal, Bamboo, by Menifee, placed in the Miss Power Puff Stakes at Hawthorne. Free the Magic, who won four of 15 starts, also placed in stakes, running second in the Delta Love Stakes at Calder and the Coral Springs Stakes at Hialeah, and third in Hialeah’s Coconut Grove Stakes, all on turf.

Free the Magic is a full sister to Flash of Joy, a stakes winner at Suffolk Downs who also placed in a graded stakes, and is a half-sister to two better horses, Forest Wind and Three Generations. Group 2 Mill Reef Stakes winner Forest Wind, by Green Forest, placed in three graded races in the U.S., and Three Generations, by Alydar, was a stakes winner on both sides of the Atlantic who also placed in graded and group stakes. Forest Wind’s full sister Forest Breeze is also granddam of Group 1 winner Cayaya, by Slew Gin Fizz, and Group 2 winner AP Candy, by Indygo Shiner, in Argentina.

Ring Weekend’s second dam, Pompoes, by Belmont, is considered the best filly, if not, indeed, the best horse, ever bred in Denmark. While that encomium might be considered faint praise, considering the minuscule size of Denmark’s Thoroughbred breeding population, Pompoes was good enough to finish second, beaten 1 1/2 lengths by Aryenne, in the 1979 Group 1 Criterium des Pouliches, now the Marcel Boussac, France’s championship race for juvenile fillies. Pompoes also placed in the Suwannee River Handicap in the U.S. after her purchase by Buckram Oak Farm.

Despite Pompoes’s birthplace, her pedigree was well up to standard for racing in larger European markets. Her sire, Belmont, by the beautifully bred French classic winner and good sire Cambremont, by Sicambre, from a top English family, won the Prix Eclipse and sired several Scandinavian champions. Her dam, Wilhelmina, by Pall Mall, spent her breeding career in Scandinavia, where she produced another stakes-placed horse and is granddam of two Scandinavian stakes winners.

Wilhelmina was a full sister to another Prix Eclipse winner, Pompous, by Pall Mall, who also ran second in the Group 2 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and third in the Prix Morny before the pattern race system designated the latter race a Group 1 stakes. Wilhelmina’s dam, Ziba, by the outstanding Irish sire The Phoenix, was a half-sister to the fast English 2-year-old Troopfire, by King’s Troop, and traces to English foundation mare Black Duchess, dam of Bay Ronald and third dam of four-time leading sire Blandford.

Ring Weekend’s sire, Tapit, has not yet finished a season at the top of the American sire list, but at this relatively early stage of his stud career it will surprise no one if he leads that list more than once. Ring Weekend’s victory in the Tampa Bay Derby helped put Tapit atop the current North American sire list with a substantial lead over Malibu Moon, after finishing the year seventh in 2013 and fourth in 2012.

Tapit has not yet sired a classic winner, but Ring Weekend, who earned 50 points toward the Kentucky Derby starting gate at Tampa, is not his only classic candidate this year. Tapiture (out of Free Spin, by Olympio) won the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on Feb. 17, and will start in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 15, and Tapit’s daughter Untapable (Fun House, by Prized) won the Grade 2 Pocahontas last year and was a wide-margin winner of the Grade 3 Rachel Alexandra this year. Other Tapit sons, including Constitution and Tap It Rich, remain on the Triple Crown trail.

Bred in Kentucky by Oldenburg Farms and purchased for $625,000 as a yearling by the Winchell family’s Winchell Thoroughbreds, Tapit was a top-class racehorse whose racing career was compromised by illness during his classic preparation. Trained by the inimitable Michael Dickinson, he won his first start at 2, a mile maiden at Delaware Park, by 7 3/4 lengths, and followed up a month later with an equally easy victory in the Grade 3 Laurel Futurity.

Sixth in his 3-year-old debut in the Florida Derby, he came out of that race with a lung infection, and his trainer considered him only half fit for the Grade 1 Wood Memorial a month later. Tapit nevertheless launched a furious rally in the homestretch to beat Master David by a half-length, with Eddington third.

That game effort, inevitably, took too much out of Tapit, and he made no show behind Smarty Jones over a terrible track in the Kentucky Derby. Tapit never fully recovered from that interruption to his career and again ran far below his ability in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby four months later, his only subsequent start.

Retired to Gainesway in 2005, Tapit possessed enough race record and pedigree to stand in Kentucky, but not enough to attract the best mares right off the bat. His sire, Pulpit, was the first good son of A.P. Indy at stud, but, since Tapit was from his third crop, he had not yet developed his current reputation as a sire of sires, a reputation due largely to Tapit’s success.

Tapit’s dam, Tap Your Heels, by Unbridled, was a minor stakes winner, but a three-quarter sister to champion sprinter Rubiano, by Unbridled’s sire, Fappiano. Rubiano was nothing special as a sire, but his dam, Ruby Slippers, by Nijinsky II, was a half-sister to the good sire Glitterman, by Dewan, and Tapit’s fourth dam, Foggy Note, by The Axe II, was the dam of top sire Relaunch, by In Reality.

Whether good sires run in families or not, Tapit is bidding to surpass Relaunch as the best sire produced by Foggy Note’s family. His first crop, headed by champion 2-year-old filly Stardom Bound (My White Corvette, by Tarr Road), made him leading freshman sire, and the stream of high-class runners by Tapit has never abated. Hansen (Stormy Sunday, by Sir Cat) gave Tapit a matching set of gray juvenile champions and 2-year-old Breeders’ Cup winners in 2011, and Tapitsfly (Flying Marlin, by Marlin) and Tapizar (Winning Call, by Deputy Minister) also have come home first at Breeders’ Cup meetings.

With 646 foals in six crops age 3 and up, Tapit has sired 47 stakes winners (7.3 percent), including 11 Grade 1 or Group 1 winners. The only thing missing from his résumé is a classic winner.

Freedom Child gave the Violas their first classic runner last year with his pacesetting effort in the Belmont Stakes. Unfortunately, Ring Weekend was gelded after his third start last year to improve his wayward focus on racing, so he will not be able to be mated with any of the Violas’ growing band of broodmares.

That group now includes four well-bred stakes winners and will one day include Grade 1 winner Byrama, whom the Violas purchased privately after she failed to meet her reserve at the 2013 Keeneland November sale. Byrama finished a brave second, by a nose,  in the Ten Palms Stakes on Feb. 23 in her first start in the Violas’ colors, and it may be an interesting race to see whether Ring Weekend or Byrama can provide them with their first Grade 1 winner.