Author: Michele MacDonald
Together, there are few races they have not won.Yet there is an empty spot on the office shelves of both Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms and trainer Bill Mott. While they have each earned winning memorabilia from the Dubai World Cup and multiple prizes from Breeders’ Cup races and an array of the sport’s most coveted hardware from other prestigious events, neither has crossed the sacred threshold that leads to what many view as the holy grail of American racing: the gold trophy presented to the winner of the Kentucky Derby. That may be about to change; in a season during which no colt has emerged as a clear favourite, the Mott-trained Juddmonte homebred colt Tacitus took a major leap forward on 6 April when he overcame a rough trip into the first turn and an eight length deficit to prevail in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct.
The victory, which marked the third consecutive triumph for the grey Tapit colt after a fourth place finish on his debut last October, catapulted him to the top of the list of horses who have earned qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby. With 150 points to his credit, Tacitus is 40 ahead of his nearest pursuer, Vekoma, who loped home in a less than scintillating Blue Grass Stakes win at Keeneland on the same afternoon. Meanwhile, across the United States in California, 2018 Champion Juvenile Game Winner lost narrowly to his Bob Bafferttrained stablemate Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby, leaving questions about both colts. Game Winner, undefeated and thrice a Grade One winner last year, has not won either of his 2019 outings, while Roadster has only a single Stakes win to his credit.
Since only the Arkansas Derby, set for 13 April, remains to be run among the major Classic preps, Tacitus has forged upwards among divisional rivals, looking like Juddmonte’s strongest Run for the Roses contender since the mighty Empire Maker back in 2003. Troubled by a tender foot, Empire Maker finished second at Churchill Downs before going on to win the Belmont Stakes. Remarkably, considering all his other glittering accomplishments, Mott has sent out only eight previous Derby starters and his best finisher was Juddmonte’s Hofburg, who finished seventh behind eventual Triple Crown winner Justify last year before placing third in the Belmont. Mott, who does not routinely aim for the Derby the way other trainers tend to do, noted that one reason Tacitus is worthy of esteem is his ability to overcome trouble, as he did resoundingly in the Wood Memorial and which can be paramount in the 20 horse Derby field.
Not only was Tacitus bumped at the start by Joevia, he then was clipped from behind by Overdeliver and was pinched back while rank. “I thought it was a very good effort,” Mott praised. “It was very rough on the first turn, but fortunately he came out of it in good order. When he was down the backside, I thought he had a nice, clear run by himself. He kind of found his feet back under him and regrouped a little bit. When it was time to run, he started to wear them down. “He’s a young horse and you never know what’s going to happen in any race. Some horses would have been discouraged with what happened on the first turn. They could have backed out of it or decided they didn’t want any part of it after getting roughed up like that,” he added.
Tacitus also has some other noteworthy positives going for him, including his robust physique, a pedigree second to none and one of the hottest riders in the world, Jose Ortiz, fresh off his victories in the Godolphin Mile and UAE Derby on the Dubai World Cup programme at Meydan. “I was pleased with his effort,” Ortiz said of Tacitus after the Wood Memorial. “It was kind of crazy around the first turn. He was a little bumped, but he’s a big horse and he managed to take that and go on and win the race.” Tacitus is the first foal produced by Juddmonte’s champion Close Hatches, a daughter of First Defence who won five Grade One events and banked over $2.7 million. They descend from Broodmare of the Year, Best In Show, also the ancestress of European champions El Gran Senor, Try My Best and Malinowski, and Kentucky Oaks heroine Blush With Pride, granddam of Classic winners Jazil, Rags To Riches and Peeping Fawn.
Juddmonte’s American manager, Garrett O’Rourke, noted that with those genetics, Tacitus is a natural for the Triple Crown trail. The colt’s big, fluid stride reminds him of Empire Maker’s sire, Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled, to whom Tacitus is inbred 3x4. Tacitus also is 4x4 to Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and 5x5 to both Secretariat and Northern Dancer, and so the Kentucky Derby’s one and a quarter mile distance looks well within his potential scope. “If there’s one thing you’re not worried about with him, it’s going a distance of ground,” O’Rourke said. “The only thing that could bother him, being a big horse, is getting into a tactical race, but I would hope the Derby would be a good paced race and that will suit him.” While Tacitus’ time for the Wood Memorial’s 1 1/8 miles was an undistinguished 1:51.23, all three Kentucky Derby preps on the day were accomplished in times over 1:50.
Roadster’s Santa Anita Derby win from off the pace was completed in 1:51.28 while Vekoma, who ran near the front the entire way at Keeneland, finished the Blue Grass in 1:50.93. The Kentucky Derby looks to feature several Dubai-related angles this year. Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s homebred Haikal closed well to gain third in the Wood Memorial and is expected to go on to Churchill Downs; he currently is ranked ninth in qualifying points. “He finished strong. He might do better with a little faster pace, but that could happen if we go to the Derby,” said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “He answered the questions; he ran very well. He can do the distance.” UAE Derby winner Plus Que Parfait stands third by Kentucky Derby qualifying points, with UAE Derby runner-up Gray Magician 15th.
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