Those of us who have spent time around race tracks know the phrases that have been associated with come-from-behind race horses. “He came from out of the clouds,” they say, or “They came from another zip code.” It’s an ability that you can find in cheap claiming horses as well as horses racing at the highest levels of the sport, and to an in-person fan, a great closing effort can be memorable and breath-taking.
It’s one thing for a horse to win a race from five or ten lengths back, and another thing altogether when they win from a deficit of twenty or more. Back in the 1950’s, Silky Sullivan was a legendary racehorse in California who was known for coming from last to get up for improbable victories. In the 1958 Santa Anita Derby, he came from 26 lengths back to win by 3 ½ lengths.
One of the most memorable deep closing moves in my lifetime took place in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The French star Arazi entered the race on a 8-race win streak, but the Juvenile would be the first time he would run on a dirt surface. On the backstretch, he was about 15 lengths off the lead that was held by Bertrando, the top American contender. Then, jockey Pat Valenzuela asked Arazi for his effort, and he weaved between horses with stunning speed, passing Bertrando as they entered into the stretch. The final winning margin was five lengths, but race caller Tom Durkin noted that the margin could’ve easily been ten if he wasn’t under wraps crossing the wire. His burst of speed as he passed horses was nothing short of amazing.
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In more recent times, how could we forget Zenyatta? She won the first 19 races of her career, almost invariably from a dead-last position. Trevor Denman’s remarkable call – “This Is Unbelievable!” – covering her closing run in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic pretty much sums it all up. Her only defeat came in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. She lost by a head to Blame, a highly distinguished horse in his own right. At the top of the stretch, Zenyatta was next to last, sitting over six lengths off the lead. She produced another remarkable effort that would win most races, but Blame managed to hold off her closing charge.
This past Saturday, the Florida Derby presented a different type of closing effort. In his previous two-turn races, the Todd Pletcher-trained Forte had shown a remarkable ability to be positioned mid-back and about three to five lengths off the lead as the field entered the far turn. In the Florida Derby, however, he had to break from the 11 post, which is a huge disadvantage, given the short run to the first turn. He was a bit further back than he usually is and had to endure a three-wide trip for most of the race. He had to go five-wide as they entered the stretch, but he still got up to win by a length. Sometimes, adversity is a great teacher, and Forte went to school in the Florida Derby. The valuable lessons he learned in the race will prepare him well for running in a 20-horse field in Kentucky.
This discussion of deep closers brings me to the “wild card” in Pletcher’s barn. What we know about Tapit Trice is that he is learning more with each race he runs. He was a $1.3 million yearling purchase, and I suspect that his fans and his trainer don’t know exactly how good he can be. He has shown more maturity in the transition to being a three-year-old, as evidenced by his two races since the first of the year. The first of those races was an eight-length victory in an allowance race at Gulfstream, won from his customary off-the-pace position. That set him up for a truly remarkable Tampa Bay Derby. It was no surprise that he was last in the early going, but it took a while for his engines to rev up. In the middle of the stretch, he was still eighth, around five lengths off the lead. His final furlong, however, was simply stunning, as he somehow got up to win by two lengths. That’s right…he made up about seven lengths in one furlong!
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Pletcher was very pleased after the Tampa Bay effort. “He finished up the way we expected him to,” Pletcher said post-race. “He certainly seems like the farther he goes, the stronger he gets. He’s got a big, long stride. Once he got clear down the lane, he really extended himself and I loved the way he finished up. He relished the two turns and the longer he goes, the better he’ll get.”
Now, Tapit Trice will enter the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland this Saturday as the likely favorite. Pletcher’s comments indicate that he expects further improvement and that he believes the horse is well suited to the extra distance of the Kentucky Derby. His challengers in the Blue Grass include Confidence Game, the 18-1 winner of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, and Raise Cain, the 23-1 upset winner of Aqueduct’s Gotham Stakes. If Tapit Trice runs his race, we can expect to see him at the back of the pack in the early going and showing his best effort in the home stretch.
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Also shown live on this Saturday’s NBC telecast will be the Santa Anita Derby. This race will feature the 1-2-3 finishers from the San Felipe Stakes of March 4th. The winner of that race was Practical Move, from the barn of Tim Yakteen. Finishing second in the race was the Richard Mandella-trained Geaux Rocket Ride, and the third finisher was the John Sherriffs-trained Skinner.
The Blue Grass Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby are major Kentucky Derby preps, with a 100-40-30-20-10 points allocation toward getting into the field for the big one. Some horses will see their stock rise on Saturday, and some will see the dreams of their connections turn into smoke. These races are two more competitive and interesting steps on the way to the Kentucky Derby, but my eyes will most clearly be focused on the continuing growth of Tapit Trice.
How to Watch Horse Racing on NBC Sports this Weekend
When is the 2023 Kentucky Derby?
The 2023 Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 6th, and will air across the networks of NBC Sports and Peacock.