Tim Sullivan’s Sports: Tapit Trice Overcomes Owner’s Kentucky Derby Anxiety

Apr 8, 2023 at 9:50 pm
Tapit Trice, the winner of the Blue Grass Stakes, at Keeneland on April 8, 2023.
Tapit Trice, the winner of the Blue Grass Stakes, at Keeneland on April 8, 2023. Photo via Keeneland

Amanda Pope’s Kentucky Derby Fever peaks at about 98.6 degrees. Hers is a case so slight that a couple of aspirin would constitute overkill. 

She will go to Churchill Downs next month because Tapit Trice is dragging her there. The gray colt won Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes by a neck Saturday over Verifying, rising to fourth place in Derby qualifying points and overcoming his owner’s instinctive reluctance to expose her horses to the “havoc” of America’s most prestigious cavalry charge.

Pope is thoroughbred racing’s obsession-free owner, as anxious about the dangers inherent in running for the roses as she is beguiled by the glory that goes with winning it. She says she thinks of her horses as her children, and her maternal instinct is to shield them from the dangers of running in traffic.  

“I don’t care if I don’t go to the Derby,” she said last spring. “I might even be happier if I don’t go to the Derby. I said I’m only going if the horse pulls us there and it looks as if he has a real legitimate chance. I didn’t want to push him. I wanted him to be sound, and here we go.”

This was a few days before Charge It ran a forlorn 17th behind longshot Rich Strike in last May’s 148th Derby and about nine months after Pope’s precious America’s Joy suffered a fatal fall at Saratoga. The Florida-based owner said she might have quit racing had she personally witnessed her unraced filly breaking her neck in a final training run last August. That Pope has come back for more, and continues to spend lavishly on prime horseflesh, is a tale of ardor outpacing anxiety.

“I’ve become more comfortable with it,” she said Saturday. “This horse can be a little bit of a challenge because he doesn’t like to get out early, but I’m sure he will find his way around the other horses once again.”

Pope paid $1.3 million for Tapit Trice at Keeneland’s September 2021 yearling sale. In partnership with Gainesway Stable’s Antony Beck, she entrusted him to trainer Todd Pletcher, horse racing’s leader in career earnings. And though Tapit Trice ranks only second among Pletcher’s Derby prospects, behind favored Forte, he showed a closing grit Saturday that echoed his stablemate’s finishing flourish in the Florida Derby.

“He didn’t jump well, but then he gained a little momentum,” Pletcher said. “It got a little hairy going into the first turn, but when he was able to secure that spot, [jockey] Luis [Saez] was able to take him out in the clear down the backside. That was the position we hoped to get into, and once he got into that stride, I thought we were in good shape.

“We’re not going to make him into a quick horse. The distances, as they stretch out, we always felt like would make him better. I think [the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby] is right in his wheelhouse.”

Verifying’s jockey, Tyler Gaffalione, would claim he had been fouled by Tapit Trice in the stretch, but the stewards promptly rejected his plea. 

“I just feel like I was riding Tapit Trice perfectly,” Saez said. “We came and passed the other horse clear, and then when I was in front, I felt like somebody hit my horse from behind. I feel like the other guy tried to look for a chance and look for a foul. That’s what I feel. I didn’t feel like we would come down. I kept the horse straight and he won the race.” 

Though the Florida Derby is the only prep to have produced more Kentucky Derby winners than the Blue Grass Stakes, Keeneland’s signature race has lost much of its luster in recent decades. Only once since 1995 has the race produced the Derby winner — Street Sense, 2007 — and no horse has won both the Blue Grass and the Derby since Strike The Gold did it in 1991.

Dowgraded to Grade 2 stakes status in 2017, the Blue Grass returned to racing’s top tier in 2022. It shared billing on Saturday with the Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial as the last Derby preps worth 100 qualifying points to the winner. Next Saturday’s Lexington Stakes, the only remaining pre-Derby points race, is unlikely to make a significant impact on the field since it awards only 20 points for first place. 

Amanda Pope will be there, despite her apprehensions. Tapit Trice has given her reason to face down her fears.