By Dan Rudy and Jennifer Doherty
As the world of horseracing prepares for “the most exciting two minutes in sports” at next month’s Kentucky Derby, a local winner leads the pack among this year’s contenders.
Tacitus ran and won the Wood Memorial Stakes at Queens’ Aqueduct Racetrack on April 6. The track’s biggest race of the year, with a purse of $750,000, it was one of the 11 held there throughout the day. Though next to last, it was the most heavily anticipated of the races, with the top four finishers earning qualifying points for inclusion in the famed Kentucky Derby on May 4.
Of the 11 colts that ran in the Wood, Tacitus was the favorite to win, his odds standing at 5-2 before the race. A three-year-old Kentucky-born gray, the horse had taken first place in his previous two races, of three total. He took first at the Tampa Bay Derby in March and in a maiden special weight race held at Aqueduct last November. The latter is held exclusively for three-year-old horses who have yet to win a race—nicknamed maidens—and “breaking one’s maiden” is an important step forward in a colt’s competitive career.
Like the Tampa Bay Derby, the Wood Memorial is a qualifier for competing in the Triple Crown, American horseracing’s biggest three derbies. The Kentucky Derby is the most widely known and first of the three. The other two are the Preakness Stakes in Maryland and New York’s Belmont Stakes. Only 20 horses can compete in the Kentucky Derby, limited to the top earners of points in qualifiers leading up to it.
Before the Wood Memorial, Tacitus was ninth on the board with the 50 points he’d picked up in Tampa Bay. Just ahead of him in eighth was Haikal, another Kentucky thoroughbred who had as many points but had picked up slightly higher prize earnings after winning the Gotham Stakes on March 9. The two were both favored highly in the Wood, along with Tax at 9-2 odds and Hoffa’s Union at 6-1.
When it came to running the mile-and-an-eighth race, Tacitus (ridden by jockey Jose Ortiz) and Tax both stayed back around the fourth and fifth positions for much of the first two turns, finally breaking ahead of the leaders in the last stretch from the outside. Tax held a slight lead going into the last eighth-mile, but in the final furlong Tacitus was able to pull ahead, eking out his win by less than a length in an exciting race.
“I was pleased with his effort,” Ortiz said about Tacitus after their victory. “I don’t know about the other horses behind me, it was kind of crazy around the first turn. After that, he got a little bumped and he’s a big horse. He managed to take that and go on and win the race.”
With his win, Tacitus earned another 100 points toward the Derby, putting him in the lead on the big board with 150 points.
“He’ll probably stay here for another week and then go to Churchill Downs,” said his trainer, Bill Mott. “I think the race sets him up well. I think the timing is fine.”
He explained the horse takes after his mother, Close Hatch, a retired mare with nine first-place wins to her name over a two-year career. “She was ready from the word ‘go,’” Mott said. “She was one that was very aggressive and very fast. He’s a little different type of horse. She was good up to a mile, a mile and an eighth. This horse, with the Tapit genes”—referring to Tacitus’ sire, himself a descendant of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew—”seems like he’s willing to go on, but he also seems to have enough speed to get him up and involved early in a race. He’s certainly not a speed horse, but he has tactical speed and we know he’s got talent and we know he’s willing to overcome a little adversity.”
Tacitus’ racing manager, Garrett O’Rourke, was excited about the colt’s prospects: “We have a legitimate contender now that’s bred to be a Derby horse and he’s now proving that, hopefully, he is up to that standard.”
Coming in second, Tax is also in the running for inclusion in the Derby, sitting at 14 on the leader board. Despite coming in third, Haikal also appears to be Derby-bound, at number 10 with the points earned at Wood and the Gotham.
“He ran such a good race,” Haikal’s jockey, Rajiv Maragh, said. “Sometimes when you don’t win, you don’t think you ran well, but he ran great without winning. He put in a great finish.”
Tacitus wasn’t the only horse to win at Aqueduct that day. Earlier in the afternoon, the Bay Shore Stakes featured another Derby favorite from earlier in the season, Mind Control. Previously number 17 on the leader board before the Wood Memorial started, the horse’s owners decided not to enter the horse in it the week prior.
Trainer Gregory Sacco had explained that the decision had to do with playing to the horse’s strengths, running him in slightly shorter races rather than pressing him into the more arduous Triple Crown circuit. Pushing the horse too hard could set it up for a career-ending injury, or even a fatal one.
Sacco gave his brother, Rick, their stable’s racing manager, credit for for that strategy. “He thought that … this race would be the right choice for him,” Sacco said. “My brother realized how talented he is up to a mile, and they just didn’t want to churn him up in the Derby fever. There was serious consideration for the Wood and to try and make it to the Derby, but he’s just so talented at this distance. We pinpointed this race first, with the Woody Stephens in mind, so if he comes out of this race well and trains well, that will be our next target.”
The Woody Stephens is another top-graded race being held next month at Belmont Park, the same weekend as the Belmont Stakes. The decision to change directions proved to be better for Mind Control: Running in the Bay Shore, he handily took first place.
“My brother was right for once. Usually I’m right!” a pleased Sacco said afterward.