Well, he's done it again, hasn't he? Tony's Tapit, who won late last month in a most spectacular performance - crowded and checked repeatedly while jockey Enrique Gonzalez waited and looked for any kind of room in his Canadian debut - upped that effort last Sunday at Century Downs.
Walking out of the starting gate like a groggy old mule that didn't want to get out of his stall, Tony's Tapit trailed his rivals by so much that you could have built a gigantic Walmart between him and the leaders. At that point bettors who had pounded him down to 25 cents on the dollar were ready to commit Hara-kiri. They were squeezing their betting slips so tightly that they were wringing wet.
"Geez, I wasn't too impressed at that point," said owner Kirk Sutherland, who watched the race on his phone from Teepee Creek, Alberta where he was running in chuckwagon races. "It was a head scratcher. I watched it and I heard the announcer saying he was last and yada yada. I don't know if that was the game plan to take him back or whether he just broke bad. I guess it worked but you don't know if that will work next time. He beat some decent horses and just drew off on a hand ride. Crazy eh?"
About the only two people who didn't seem worried were Tony's Tapit's trainer Jim Brown, who must be cooler than a penguin's refrigerator, and Gonzalez, who rode the three-year-old sensation like nothing was amiss. "No, I wasn't too concerned," said Brown. "There were four other horses that were battling up front."
Not 'too concerned'? Your horse is running last by a zillion lengths and you weren't concerned? "No, not really," said Brown back at his barn while Tony's Tapit got a post-race bath with water colder than what must run through Brown's unflappable veins. "He broke a little slow last time too and he still dragged Enrique to the front."
Tony's Tapit was running in the card's fourth race. Yet he was so far back that it appeared he was running in the fifth. Instead of panicking, Gonzalez just settled Tony's Tapit down the backstretch of the seven-furlong race like he was out for a morning gallop. Not once did Gonzalez pull out the stick or push on Tony's Tapit's neck.
It turned out he didn't have to. All on his own, Tony's Tapit closed the gap from a zillion lengths to half a zillion lengths down the backstretch. And then - in an unlikely heart beat - it was over. Tony's Tapit passed Cozy Bear on the rail to move up to be fifth, then fourth, then third, then - Yowza. With a quarter of a mile left to run Tony's Tapit had the lead to himself. Just like that.
As easily as he passed his rivals around the turn, Tony's Tapit increased his lead down the stretch. The official winning margin was six and a half lengths but it might as well have been pick any number you want. Wrapped up in midstretch, he could have won by 20 lengths if Gonzalez had ever released the long-striding colt.
So what do you think of Tony's Tapit now Mr. Brown? "I've always thought highly of him," said Brown flatly and as if he had just won a game of checkers. He didn't do anything to discourage me. Let's put it that way."
Wow. And, no kidding. Impressive? This was amazing. To use former Calgary Herald sportswriter Larry Wood's words, Tony's Tapit's breath-taking win after getting so far behind was like 'climbing Mount Everest in sneakers and a tuxedo' or 'spotting the other guy a half-dozen punches in a title fight.'
"He looks like a freak," said Gonzalez's agent, Riley Rycroft. "There were some half decent colts in Sunday's race and Enrique didn't turn him loose at any point."
Not that winning the race was a surprise or anything. This is, after all, a horse that was supposed to win - a horse who won his previous start, the June 20 Western Canada Handicap, by five and a quarter lengths while never being asked to run either. "He was climbing over other horses looking for room in the Western Canada. It takes a runner to do that," said Brown.
And it is a horse that has now won three races in a row and six of his last eight appearances - the other four races all coming at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, Arizona which is where Sutherland and Brown bought him privately for an undisclosed price that is rumoured to be around $45,000. Whatever that price was, it certainly looks like a bargain now.
"We were interested in him for quite a while before we bought him," said Brown. "We wanted to see him go long before we got too serious." There's a good reason for that. Sutherland and Brown wanted a horse they could run in the Canadian Derby - a mile and a quarter offering on Sept. 11.
Tony's Tapit, however, had never won going longer than six furlongs. But then his previous owners entered him in the mile and a sixteenth Turf Paradise Derby on March 12 and Sutherland and Brown very much liked what they saw when Tony's Tapit ran a good second defeated by just three-quarters of a length.
While Tony's Tapit has now won his two Century Mile races coming from behind, he was primarily a speed horse in both Phoenix and West Virginia's Mountaineer Park racetrack where he started his career. "The way he walked out of the gate might be a blessing," said Brown. "He's developing a nice running style. He has speed but if you don't have to use it, it gives you more options. "If there's speed in a race you can take him back. If there's no speed he can lay up close."
So what's next for Tony's Tapit? "No concrete plans," said Brown, who came to Alberta from Vancouver when Century Mile opened three years ago. "The Manitoba Derby is one option. The Count Lathum here at Century is another." The Count Lathum is a seven furlong $50,000 race on August 1. The Manitoba Derby is a mile and an eighth $100,000 race on August 2. Kirk and I will sit down over the next couple of days and make a decision. Chances are he'll stay here. But I don't know for sure."
"It's up to Jim," said Sutherland. "Right now I don't know which race makes more sense."
What will be most interesting is to see what happens when Tony's Tapit meets the Craig Smith-trained Jumeirah Coast, who won his debut in a similarly sensational style - getting away 10th and last and then running on to an easy victory on June 27. That was Jumeirah's Coast's only start but he did it so impressively that a match-up between him and Tony's Tapit should be an event you don't want to miss.
STOCK REPORT - There are two stakes races this weekend: the Shirley Vargo for mares on Friday and the Spangled Jimmy for aged horses on Sunday. Hidden Grace defeated Raider by a neck in their last meeting, the RedTail Landing and another close repeat would not be surprising. In the Spangled Jimmy, Stone Carver, who set a track record winning the Journal Handicap, will likely be mildly favoured.
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