Friday, June 17, 2016

Ghost on the Track


Kentucky Derby Gets a Silver Sheen

The NY Times  By MELISSA HOPPERTMAY 6, 2016 

Tapit is one of the world’s leading sires and has three sons in the Kentucky Derby. Credit Austin Koester for The New York Times

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Buried on the grounds of Gainesway Farm’s perfectly manicured 1,500 acres are several champion racehorses, including the prolific gray sire Mahmoud, a grandfather of the first gray horse to win the Kentucky Derby.

Not far from the grave site, Tapit, a gray sire whose libido and fertility are rivaling those of the greats, resides in a plush corner stall next to his son Tapizar and across the way from American Pharoah’s grandfather Empire Maker. Tapit is brilliant white now, almost ghostlike, and blends in among the eight white stucco stallion barns.

At 15, he has passed along enough of his “hot blood,” as the stallion manager Carl Buckler likes to call it, to establish himself as a two-time champion sire and to command a $300,000 stud fee, the highest in North America. So far, his progeny have won 45 graded stakes races, including 17 in Grade I, and earned more than $91 million.

On Saturday, three of his sons — Mohaymen, Creator and Lani, all gray — plus a fourth gray colt, Destin, a son of Giant’s Causeway, will compete in the Kentucky Derby, casting a rare silver sheen on the most famous horse race in America. (Two daughters, Royal Obsession and Taxable, raced in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday.)

The highest number of gray horses to run in a Derby field dating back to 1930 is five, in 1968 and 1981. Only eight gray horses have won the Kentucky Derby: Determine (1954) and his son Decidedly (1962); Spectacular Bid (1979); Gato Del Sol (1982); Winning Colors (1988); Silver Charm (1997); Monarchos (2001); and Giacomo (2005). Yet if Saturday’s race goes off with a full 20-horse field, there is a 20 percent chance the winner will be gray.

Lani, a son of Tapit, will race on Saturday. Credit Rob Carr/Getty Images

To have four gray horses heading into the Derby starting gate, let alone three sired by Tapit, is a statistical oddity considering that only 1,937, or 8 percent, of the 23,169 foals registered with the Jockey Club from the 2013 foal crop were gray or roan. Bay was the most popular color, with 8,211, or 35 percent.

“He really seems to be positioning himself for greatness because he has had so much success,” said Edward L. Bowen, a horse racing historian and the president of the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. “The influence of Tapit will go on for generations.”

The gray of all grays was Native Dancer, whose only career loss came in the 1953 Kentucky Derby. Nicknamed the Gray Ghost, Native Dancer captured the attention of many by standing out on black-and-white television screens.

Another standout gray, Skip Away, the champion 3-year-old male in 1996, was purchased by the Hall of Fame trainer Sonny Hine for his wife, Carolyn, who had vision problems and wanted a gray horse because they were easier to spot on the racetrack.

Tapit won the Wood Memorial in 2004, but his racing career was cut short after only six races because of recurring lung infections. So he was sent to the breeding shed, where he could pass on genes he inherited from standouts like Native Dancer, Mr. Prospector, Seattle Slew, A. P. Indy and Unbridled.

“He had a fabulous pedigree, and all the qualities needed, so we thought he would make a good sire,” said his trainer, Michael Dickinson. “I can’t say that we thought he would be this good. But we always had a lot of confidence in him.”

Mohaymen, another son of Tapit, works out in preparation for the Derby. Credit Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

To produce a gray horse, only one copy of a dominant gene is needed, from either the mother or the father, according to Ernest Bailey, a geneticist at the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky. If both parents are gray, there is at least a 75 percent chance the foal will be gray, Bailey said. If one parent is gray, there is at least a 50 percent chance of the foal’s being gray. But every horse that is gray has at least one gray parent.

When gray horses are born, they are usually a solid color, like bay or chestnut, and have flecks of gray hair. Some would identify that as “roan.” But just like humans, as the horses age, they become more gray and eventually turn almost white. The colors gray and roan were once recognized separately by the Jockey Club on certificates of foal registration, but the categories were merged beginning with the foal crop of 1993.

“Combining the two colors into one category reduced the number of corrections, saving breeders and owners the time and expense associated with filing for corrected certificates of foal registration,” said Rick Bailey, the Jockey Club registrar.

The only clear differences between gray horses and bays or chestnuts, is that grays are easier to spot and harder to keep clean. Tapit, who loves to roll around in the mud, is given multiple baths a day and is even vacuumed to keep him looking regal.

Because they stand out, gray horses have become popular among bettors: “I’m betting the gray” is a common phrase heard at racetracks.

“The Derby is so unique because you have a lot of people betting who don’t normally bet, and pick horses based on names, numbers and colors,” Bowen said. “It will be interesting to see if the allure of the gray has an effect on the odds Saturday.”

Sarah Duffy, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, is one of those fans. “There is something mystical about the grays,” she said. “They have a spirit.”

This year, she has plenty of grays to choose from. She is picking Mohaymen to win the Derby because she likes the even color of his coat and the look in his eyes. She is hoping that he can treat fans to a second consecutive Triple Crown sweep, following American Pharoah’s sweep last year.

“I’ve been a fan of the ponies since I was a young girl,” Duffy said. “My mom claims it is because she and I watched the last Triple Crown winner when she was pregnant with me. I waited the full 37 years to see one on the outside.”

Tapit’s sire, Pulpit, was known to be a handful, and Tapit has passed on his father’s aggressive nature to several offspring. His progeny at the Derby have acted up while training on the racetrack, in the paddock and in the starting gate.

“If you didn’t know the horse, he’d be a tough horse to fool with,” Buckler, the stallion manager, said of Tapit. “But if you get to know him, and respect him, he’ll respect you. He’s more aggressive than my other horses. I say it’s his bloodline. At least we got the good end of it: stakes winners.”

Tapit’s demeanor serves him well in the breeding shed, where he has no trouble keeping his focus.

“He’s easy to handle when he gets into the breeding shed; it’s all action,” Buckler said. “There’s no coaxing. Zero. You just stand behind the mare with him and let him get ready.”

Creator is the third son of Tapit in the race. Credit Andy Lyons/Getty Images

His owner Ron Winchell, who retained a 50 percent stake in Tapit and is able to watch him any time of day from a security camera feed, said Tapit was more playful than anything else. “When he was racing, he would literally take stuff out of his stall and throw it,” he said. “It’s not a mean aggressive, more of like, ‘Ha ha I got you.’ ”

Winchell is in an awkward spot this week. He owns Gun Runner, who is trained by Steve Asmussen and is not a Tapit colt. But Asmussen also trains Creator, a Tapit colt not owned by Winchell. Either way, though, Winchell would win if one of those horses crossed the finish line first.

“I would have thought our horse in the Derby would have been a Tapit, but it’s not, and it’s even funnier that Steve has a Tapit, and it’s not ours,” Winchell said. “Ideally it would be us in first, and a Tapit in second.”

No matter what happens Saturday, Tapit will keep breeding up to 135 mares a year, performing up to three times a day. His handlers hope he keeps producing champions.

“The only competition Tapit has is himself,” Michael Hernon, the director of sales at Gainesway, said, referring to Tapit’s earnings of $18.3 million in 2015, breaking his own North American record of $16.8 million in 2014.

Asked if the farm staff would do anything special for the champion stallion should one of his sons win the Derby — adorn his stall with roses, perhaps — Hernon replied: “I don’t know if he’s a roses kind of guy. He prefers Champagne.”

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White stallion Tapit is laughing on all the way to the bank — © John Gress  Reuters

 

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