Kentucky Derby contender Tacitus on deck as Juddmonte's next star
by Michael Adolphson
If Tacitus' blood was any bluer, it would be cerulean. By America's top dirt sire, 2004 Wood Memorial winner Tapit, out of five-time Grade 1-winning New York heroine and Eclipse champion Close Hatches, the flashy gray colt is owned by Prince Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud's global powerhouse Juddmonte Farms, and trained by Hall of Fame conditioner and New York-based Bill Mott.
In other words, Tacitus is an equine golden (or silver, in his case) child of thoroughbred racing, darling of New York and carries a stadium of expectations heading into Saturday's Grade 1, $3 million Kentucky Derby.
"I think we settled on trying to produce a Kentucky Derby-type runner with Close Hatches, as the Derby is a rare yet-to-be-accomplished goal for Prince Khalid, whose runners have been second twice with Aptitude and Empire Maker," Garrett O'Rourke, general manager of Juddmonte's North American operations said. "Prince Khalid was in attendance for Empire Maker [and previously for Eltish, who was sixth] and Sightseek and Heat Haze won graded races on that undercard, but the big fish got away. Tapit was an obvious cross for Close Hatches and subsequent matings to Malibu Moon and Curlin have the same goals. Close Hatches was checked into foal to Tapit (on April 23)."
Mott added: "Being a homebred and having had the mother, we did very well with her (Close Hatches) winning several Grade 1s against a good group of fillies. Tacitus is a nice big colt, particularly for a first foal. Even when we ran him the first time, we were pleasantly surprised when he jumped out and was up on the pace. He's one of those horses that saves himself a little bit, you know. He's not going to take it all out of himself in the morning. His works are useful, not brilliant, and it's just his disposition. He's going to do enough. I've had other horses like that; actually Cigar was like that. There were seldom any :59s or that sort of thing."
Tacitus has been nearly as flawless in action as he is on paper. His one black mark from four starts came in his debut, when he made a three-wide bid, but weakened when the real running started on October 4 at Belmont Park. He returned five weeks later to gamely garner his graduation over a one-turn mile at Aqueduct, despite a five-wide trip.
In March, he made his 3-year-old bow a winning one when annexing the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby in promising fashion before overcoming a rough trip to win the Grade 2 Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets as his final tune-up for the 'Run for the Roses'.
Jose Ortiz, eight times a meet-leading rider on the NYRA circuit and the 2017 Eclipse Award winner as outstanding jockey, had his selection of horses for the iconic event, and chose to stay with Tacitus-a horse he has ridden in all four of his races.
"His breeding is unbelievable," Ortiz said. "I chose him because I think he will handle the distance and because of his win in the Wood Memorial."
Ortiz's enthusiasm is well-founded. Like Juddmonte's 2016 champion - and Travers winner Arrogate before him - nothing about Tacitus has come lightly and those around him have always been hopeful that he could be worthy of his potential. Such obviously includes helping his owner claim a trophy he has coveted for decades-one of the few great races in the world that the green and pink silks of Juddmonte have yet to acquire.
Tacitus could very well be the obvious turning point for a titanic operation that is shifting its focus to dirt after campaigning some of the world's best turf horses, including Enable, Dancing Brave and Frankel. Dirt standouts Arrogate and Empire Maker aside, its Classic influence on the surface has left something to be desired-but acquiring desired prizes is something the widespread and calculating operation has done quite well. And, with only four starters, it is obvious that when it has shown up on the First Saturday in May, Juddmonte came to play ball.
"Two seconds, a sixth and a seventh (Hofburg in 2018) in the Derby are not that bad of a record," O'Rourke continued. "With influences like Empire Maker in our pedigrees and concentration recently on doubling down on dirt stallions like Tapit and Into Mischief, we hope it should follow that we would produce more of the classic dirt type than the historically dirt-biased runners we produced from the U.S. broodmare band when stallions like Nijinsky II, Blushing Groom and Danzig were available to us. So far, the results are encouraging.
"There can only be one winner," O'Rourke added. "It wasn't us last year, unfortunately, but we are back in position and hopefully Tacitus is ready to step out."
Make way for Tacitus if you have room in your Derby line-up. The blue-blooded golden child with the silver coat and platinum New York parents is stepping up to the plate and swinging away.