When the owners of Tap Shoes chose Horatio Luro to train their colt this year, many racetracks snickered. The senor is 80 years old, and the achievements that earned him a niche in the Hall of Fame are almost ancient history.
But no one was laughing today, not after Luro's months of work with this awkward and fragile colt paid off with a victory in Hialeah's $178,000 Flamingo Stakes.
Tap shoes stalked the early leaders and then wore down Well Decorated in the stretch to score a one-length victory. It might not have been a spectacular performance -- the time of 1:49 1/5 for a mile and one-eighth was unimpressive -- but it cemented Tap Shoes' status as one of the leading contenders for the Kentucky Derby.
Luro took over the training of Tap Shoes after last season, when co-owner Arthur Hancock decided to replace Howard Tesher. In fact, it was a depressing day all around for Tesher. His colt, John Speaks, who might have won the Flamingo, came down with a fever early this morning and had to be scratched.
At the time of the switch in trainers, Tap Shoes' physical condition was suspect, and the cognoscenti doubted whether he was cut out to be more than a miler.
Tap shoes had been given only one sprint to prepare for today's mile and one-eighth, but he answered conclusively all doubts about his distance-going ability.
Dash O'Pleasure and Well Decorated, two other talented colts with suspect stamina, went to the lead in the Flamingo, but jockey Reuben Hernandez was able to put Tap Shoes in perfect striking position. Luro said he didn't want his colt attempting any big come-from-behind run: "If we are going to lose, we will lose in the thick of battle."
Tap shoes moved into the thick of battle on the far turn, advancing outside the leaders, and looked for a moment as if he were going to blow past them. But Well Decorated was still strong, having set a slow early pace, and spurted away from the challenger.
Hernandez wasn't worried. "I knew I had him," he said. He angled toward the rail and surged past the tiring leader with a sixteenth of a mile to go. Well Decorated was, in fact, slowing down as much as Tap Shoes was accelerating. They covered the last eighth of a mile in a slow 13 1/5 seconds.
Tap shoes paid $3.20, $2.60 and $2.20. Well Decorated, the second choice, returned $3.40 and $2.80. Double Sonic, who finished another four lengths back in third place, paid $2.80 to show.
Despite the 3-to-5 odds, Luro knew that the outcome of the Flamingo was no foregone conclusion. Training Tap Shoes, he said, had not been easy: "He's a very nervous horse, very difficult to rate. We had to spend a lot of time on the track with him."
And when he was on the track, Tap Shoes would run with his awkward-looking style, throwing one leg out in a paddling motion that is usually the mark of a horse with physical problems.
Tap Shoes learned his lessons well enough to earn a trip to Kentucky. And the senor, who won the derby with Northern Dancer in 1964, will know how to get him there.