As a colt, Tappat gave trainer Thomas Greene a heart attack, quite literally. But the now-gelded 4-year-old gave Greene relatively little stress while winning the $50,000 Walter Haight Handicap over a strong field yesterday at Laurel Park.
Tappat came under Greene's care after Tega Farm, a Virginia Beach outfit, bought the son of Pleasant Tap for $80,000 at a disbursement sale for Kentucky's Buckland Farm in 1997. The relationship between Tappat and Greene has been tumultuous from the start, never more so than when the horse slammed the trainer into a stall wall while preparing for a morning workout. Greene went into cardiac arrest as a result of the assault, making him the fourth stable employee sent to the hospital by the precocious animal.
Greene says he gelded Tappat "the day after" he got out of the hospital. Before the operation, Tappat was still a maiden. But Tappat won his first race after losing his colt status and has notched victories in five of his seven starts as a gelding.
"He was too mean to run, I think," Greene said. "He's still mean, but we can at least handle him a little now."
Tappat's meanness resurfaced in the paddock just minutes before the Haight Handicap, when he bruised Greene's elbow with an unexpected kick. Despite the victory binge, bettors sent Tappat off as the fourth choice out of the five entries in the Haight Handicap, a 1 1/8-mile trip. Perfect to a Tee, winner of the $100,000 William Donald Schaefer Handicap on Preakness day, went off as the favorite.
As the gates opened, Praise Heaven hustled to the front, and, with jockey Greg Hutton keeping him along the rail, held a six-length lead at the half-mile mark. Coming into the final turn, Perfect to a Tee made a wide move to challenge the pacesetter, with Tappat following closely.
Greene instructed jockey Mario Verge, who was aboard Tappat for the first time, to hold his mount off the pace. Coming into the stretch, Verge tapped Tappat on the shoulder with his stick, sending the horse on an outside charge around Praise Heaven and Perfect to a Tee. Despite taking a longer route than either of the front-runners, Verge said he never doubted he had the most horse left for the final furlong.
"Mr. Greene told me this is a push-button horse, and that all I have to do is pick the bridle up and touch his shoulder, and he'll take off," Verge said. "And that's what happened. When I asked him to go, he pricked his ears and went."
At the wire, it was Tappat by 2 3/4 lengths. He finished in 1 minute 49 1/5 seconds and paid $11.40. The victory pushed Tappat's career earnings past $110,000. The colt Brilliant Code, the only non-gelding starter in the Haight Handicap, finished last.
In the winner's circle, Greene said he will never have trouble forgiving Tappat's tempestuousness as long as he keeps winning.
"This is a great horse, but he just doesn't like me," said Greene, rubbing his bruised elbow. "It probably has something to do with me having him gelded. I'd hold a grudge if I were him, too."