Updated on 09/17/2011 2:11PM

Tapit may be moving too fast, too soon


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - When Tapit captured the Laurel Futurity in November, many observers thought they were seeing the winner of the 2004 Kentucky Derby. Not only did Tapit deliver an explosive performance in the second start of his career, he had the other requisite credentials for success: a superb pedigree and a great trainer.

Michael Dickinson has never started a horse in a Triple Crown race, but his training feats are legendary. On the day of the Laurel Futurity, he won the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash with A Huevo, a gelding who had been sidelined with injuries for four years. He brought Da Hoss back from a two-year layoff to win the 1998 Breeders' Cup Mile. Although Dickinson has made his reputation with older horses and grass specialists, he had long dreamed of winning the Derby. After the Laurel race, Dickinson believed he had a colt who could do it.

Tapit will make his 3-year-old debut in Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. But the decision to run him in the $1 million event seems perverse, for this is a race that he probably can't win. And Tapit's Kentucky Derby prospects suddenly look much less bright than they did in the fall.

Tapit was born with the potential to be a Derby horse. A son of the stallion Pulpit and a grandson of A.P. Indy and Unbridled, both Breeders' Cup Classic winners, Tapit commanded $625,000 as a yearling. Verne Winchell, the prominent California owner who bought him, died two months later, leaving his horses to his son, Ron. David Fiske, Winchell's farm manager, took charge of the racing operation and put Tapit in Dickinson's care.

After winning his debut at Delaware Park by eight lengths, Tapit faced legitimate competition in the Laurel Futurity. Blocked on the backstretch and the final turn, he finally found running room in the stretch and accelerated powerfully to win by nearly five lengths. No 2-year-old in America had looked more impressive.

Dickinson planned to send Tapit to Florida for the winter and race him three times before the Kentucky Derby. But the plans were disrupted when Tapit developed a shin problem, a routine but very inconvenient malady. Dickinson brought Tapit back to his home base, his farm in Maryland, and contemplated his alternatives. People who know Dickinson's modus operandi assumed he would find a soft spot for Tapit's comeback and put him in a major Derby prep race like the Wood Memorial.

Instead, Tapit is going immediately into the toughest possible spot - a $1 million race headed by Read the Footnotes, who won last month's Fountain of Youth Stakes and earned a spectacular Beyer Speed Figure of 113. (Tapit's Laurel Futurity figure was a 98.) Dickinson recognizes the challenges he faces: "All the other horses in the Florida have had a [recent] race, and that's a plus for them. We missed 19 days of training."

This is a very uncharacteristic move for Dickinson. When he brought A Huevo back to competition last fall, he ran him in an easy allowance race at Delaware Park before winning the De Francis Dash. He handled Da Hoss similarly. In both cases, he didn't want his horse to deliver a peak effort prematurely. So why is he handling Tapit so differently? Dickinson declines to discuss the decision, and refers questioners to Fiske. The implication is that the racing manager is calling the shots.

Fiske said: "It almost came down to a process of elimination. We could have gone in an allowance race, but that would seem to be a cheapening of him. And I prefer running against five horses for $1 million rather than a big field for $250,000."

Yet Fiske seemed to recognize that Tapit's chances of beating Read the Footnotes are slim. He said Tapit might win "if the race falls apart in front of him."

Running Tapit in the Florida Derby is a mistake, and not just because he is likely to suffer the first defeat of his life. One of the precepts of good Thoroughbred management is to avoid asking young horses to do too much too soon. Subjecting them to too much stress takes a toll on them. The big 3-year-old races are stressful enough under any circumstances. After Read the Footnotes outdueled Second of June in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, Second of June came out of the race with an injury that eliminated him from the Triple Crown series. So, too, did third-place finisher Silver Wagon.

Even if Tapit suffers no ill effects from Saturday's race, he has other obstacles ahead. Because of the disruption of his training schedule, he has time for only one more prep race before he goes to Churchill Downs. (Fiske said the race might be the Wood Memorial or the Illinois Derby.) This means Tapit would go into the Derby after racing only four times in his life, and the last horse to win the roses after such a light campaign was Exterminator, in 1918.

Dickinson has defied history many times before. But Tapit has such difficult challenges ahead of him that even his trainer's formidable skills may not be sufficient to surmount them.

(c) 2004 The Washington Post