Updated on 09/17/2011 12:00PM

Tapit has Dickinson on fast track


WASHINGTON - Even jaded racing fans get excited when they spot a young horse who seems destined to become a star. More than a few people at Laurel Park on Nov. 15 had that sensation as they watched a 2-year-old colt who might be the winner of the 2004 Kentucky Derby.

His name is Tapit, and his victory in the Laurel Futurity was the most impressive performance to date by a member of his generation. He possesses both the talent and the pedigree necessary for success in the 3-year-old classics. Now it is up to his trainer, Michael Dickinson - who has never run a horse in a Triple Crown race - to get the colt to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Laurel is a slightly improbable place for a star to be born. Although the Futurity used to be one of the nation's most important races - it was won by the likes of Citation, Secretariat, and Affirmed - it has declined in significance; its $100,000 purse gives it little more than local interest. But this year it attracted three promising colts who had already earned solid speed figures, Tapit being one of them. He had captured his racing debut, a maiden event at Delaware Park, by nearly eight lengths.

After Tapit broke a bit tardily in the Futurity, jockey Ramon Dominguez rushed him to secure a position on the rail - and got trapped there. All the way along the backstretch he had rivals in front of him and outside him. "Tapit's been aching for some racing room!" announcer Dave Rodman called. "Tapit's crying out for room!"

Ghost Mountain, a Nick Zito trainee, had seized the lead turning into the stretch when Dominguez finally found an opening. As soon as he had daylight in front of him, Tapit accelerated powerfully and blew past the leader, prompting Rodman to exclaim, "Tapit's going to be tons the best! He could be any kind of horse!" He drew away to win by 4 3/4 lengths in fast time that earned him a Beyer Speed Figure of 98. Considering that many of the leaders of his generation appear to have stamina limitations, and that Action This Day won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with a figure of 92, Tapit moved immediately to the head of his class.

Tapit is a son of the well-regarded stallion Pulpit. His female family is regal, and both of his grandsires, A.P. Indy and Unbridled, were classic winners. Because of these credentials, the prominent California horse owner Verne Witchell spent $625,000 for the colt at the Keeneland yearling sales in 2002. It was the last horse he ever bought. Two months later he died of a heart attack, and his son, Ron, took over the family's Thoroughbred ventures.

Tapit went into the care of Dickinson, a man who is the very antithesis of the trainers who succeed in the Triple Crown series. Dickinson doesn't rush his horses; he has made his reputation with his patient handling of older runners. On the day of Tapit's Futurity victory, Dickinson won the main event, the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash, with the 7-year-old A Huevo, who had been sidelined for 46 months with a succession of injuries.

This kind of patient management is entirely different from the skills needed to win the Kentucky Derby. Trainers such as Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert, and Zito succeed in the Triple Crown because they are willing to push their horses relentlessly toward their objective.

"It isn't my style," Dickinson conceded. "But I know there's only one Kentucky Derby. When I came to America I wanted to win the Breeders' Cup and the Derby. The owner [of Tapit] made it clear he wants to win the Derby. So I know I'll have to push a little bit."

Dickinson is keenly aware of Derby history and the requirements for winning the race: "You have to get your horse enough experience at 2, and arrive at January 1st with a sound 3-year-old." Dickinson has accomplished the first part; Tapit has laid the necessary foundation by winning two distance races. And Tapit is a healthy horse, though Dickinson acknowledged that descendants of both Pulpit and Unbridled often have soundness problems.

Dickinson said Tapit won't run against this year. In January he will go from Dickinson's Maryland farm to the Palm Meadows training center in Florida, so that northern weather doesn't disrupt his preparations. Dickinson must pick two or three races in which to run the colt before the Derby, and he would be wise to be orthodox. The Kentucky Derby is almost always won by a horse who follows a tried and true path. Novel approaches (such as training horses in Europe or Dubai and then shipping to Louisville) invariably fail.

But the adjective "orthodox" has rarely been applied to Dickinson, and as he contemplated his Derby strategy, he said, "I'm not shackled by the chains of tradition, nor am I a slave to abstract theory. I'm my own man, and I'll do what's best for the horse." His pursuit of the Derby should be engrossing - and eminently quotable, too.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post