NEW CUMBERLAND, W.Va. - Trainers tend to develop patterns when preparing their horses for major stakes efforts. And there's something rather familiar about the path Steve Asmussen has taken to bring his colt Tapiture to next Saturday's Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby.
In his most recent start on June 14, Tapiture drew off to a two-length triumph in the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs. The 'Matt Winn is a 1 1/16-mile event. The West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort is a half-furlong further in distance at 1 1/8 miles.
Back in 2007 another Asmussen trainee, Zanjero, finished second by a neck in the 1 1/16-mile Northern Dancer Stakes at Churchill, and won the West Virginia Derby in his next start. Since then, the Matt Winn has replaced the Northern Dancer on Churchill's spring schedule but it has the same distance, same conditions and same spot on the calendar as its predecessor.
Asmussen has won the West Virginia Derby four times, which constitutes an unmatched record among trainers. In addition to Zanjero, he was victorious with Real Dandy in 2005, Soul Warrior in 2009 and Macho Macho in 2012.
Zanjero was owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC, a family partnership founded by the late Verne Winchell and now the nom de course of his widow, Joan, and their son, Ron. Tapiture is a Winchell homebred. His career resume includes nine starts, a trio of wins, four placings and purse earnings of $557,310.
Tapiture is a son of Tapit, who was North America's leading sire (in regard to purse earnings by his offspring) in 2013, and again tops the list this year. Untapable, another Winchell homebred by Tapit, is the leader of North America's three-year-old filly division. She's challenging male horses and is the 2-1 morning line favorite in Sunday's Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park.
There's no question that Tapiture will be heavily backed at the wagering windows in the West Virginia Derby. His dam, Free Spin (still another Winchell homebred), has produced two other stakes winners, Retap and Remit. In 2008, Retap finished second in the Mountaineer Juvenile on the West Virginia Derby undercard.
But there are also some rather unusual components within Tapiture's past performances. He placed in graded company before he broke his maiden, finishing third in his second career start in the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes at Churchill last September.
His graduation from the maiden ranks occurred in his fourth career start, when Tapiture was victorious by 4 lengths in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill on November 30. His final time for the 1 1/16-mile 'Jockey Club was 1:43.51 - acceptable for a horse of any age, quite impressive for a two-year-old.
Tapiture's three-year-old campaign commenced with a 4 -length triumph in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park in mid-February. The following month, he finished second by a half-length as the 2-1 wagering choice in Oaklawn's Grade 2 Rebel Stakes.
He was a fading fourth in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, and finished unplaced in a bumper car trip in an overcrowded, 19-horse Kentucky Derby field. But Tapiture looked as formidable as he's ever been in his next start, the Matt Winn. And his recent workouts at Saratoga further suggest he's returned to the top of his game.
Zanjero tended to cruise along in mid-pack during the early and midway stages of a race, and utilize a big closing kick during the stretch run. Tapiture's running style is similar, to the point where it borders identical. Asmussen knows what he's doing. And, yes, he's done this before.
Notes: Moonshine Mullin, who defeated last year's three-year-old champ Will Take Charge in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill on June 14, is viewed as "yes" for the West Virginia Governor's Stakes on the Derby undercard. Among his confirmed opponents is Point Finish, a Claiming Crown winner at Gulfstream Park last December.