We sometimes talk of the moment in a young horse’s career when the bulb switches on. When the resulting illumination is as brilliant as was the case with Greatest Honour (Tapit) at Gulfstream last Saturday, however, it feels as though the whole sport can bask in the glow. Those few strides in the GIII Holy Bull S. when he clicked into top gear, before running clear in the stretch, not only announced his own candidature but cast into exciting new perspective the whole road to Churchill on the first Saturday in May.
The way ahead looks particularly auspicious for Tapit, whose career at Gainesway plainly deserves the final gilding of a GI Kentucky Derby success. With champion Essential Quality already setting the standard, he now also has one to head all the emerging talent in these initial sophomore skirmishes. Both horses, moreover, vindicate acorn-to-oak development by a breeding program.
And what acorns, in this case! For the second and fourth dams of Greatest Honour are Broodmares of the Year, with a GI Kentucky Oaks winner in between, and the family seeded by distaff influences of corresponding stature in Street Cry (Ire), Deputy Minister and Blushing Groom (Fr). Every forward step now, then, will only add to the appeal of Greatest Honour as a stallion prospect. As such, even after a solitary start outside maidens, he already appears potentially the most significant horse in the history of Courtlandt Farm.
Its principal achiever to date remains Grade I winner Film Maker (Dynaformer), placed in three consecutive runnings of the GI Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. But Donald Adam and his wife Donna, the farm’s owners, remain as enthusiastic as ever judging from their acquisition of half a dozen yearlings in the first two sessions at Keeneland last September for $4,325,000. This reflects a new strategy over the past five years or so, Courtlandt having primarily raced homebreds to that point. For octogenarian owners, clearly, that’s a pretty natural evolution.
“I think Mr. Adam just felt that by the time you have planned your mating, and the gestation is 11 months, and then it’s another year and a half before you’re breaking them…time goes along pretty quick on you,” explains Ernie Retamoza, their farm manager. “Whereas when you go to the yearling sales and you’re defining athletes you think fit your program, you get them home and they’re under tack within two or three weeks. But it was a process. We didn’t just lead all the mares over there and sell them. We went through them case by case.”
The net result is a broodmare band trimmed from around 25 to seven or eight. And actually Tiffany’s Honour (Street Cry Ire), the dam of Greatest Honour, fell right into that mix, spending just three years on the Courtlandt books before being moved on. Yet while her stay was relatively brief, it had ample span for destiny to incorporate extremes of tragedy and hope.
As a daughter of $14-million broodmare icon Better Than Honour (Deputy Minister), and duly a half-sister to GI Belmont S. winners Rags To Riches (A.P. Indy) and Jazil (Seeking The Gold), the 4-year-old Tiffany’s Honour did not meet her reserve even at $2.3 million when offered with a maiden cover by Tapit at Fasig-Tipton in November 2015–despite finishing stone last in all three starts for breeder Southern Equine Stables. And even though Courtlandt was then just beginning its transition, Adam couldn’t resist the idea of a Tapit out of that family. He secured a private deal and, sure enough, Tiffany’s Honour delivered a beauty.
“Just an unbelievable colt,” Retamoza recalls. “Lane’s End has a pretty good client media section, they take real good care of us, and we always get pictures from Alys Emson through email of our foals and mares. But with this particular colt, I got a picture one day from [long-serving farm manager] Mike Cline. Mike never sends me pictures! I thought that spoke volumes.”
Tiffany’s Honour had meanwhile been sent to War Front and, consistent with the new policy, was slated for sale that November. But then disaster struck: the Tapit colt was lost in a paddock accident.
“That just broke our hearts,” Retamoza says. “We knew this was the reason Mr. Adam had pursued the mare, we knew what Lane’s End thought of him, it had looked like everything was working out. And then this unfortunate thing happened.”
Undaunted, Adam resolved to seek redress from fate and retained the mare for another visit to Tapit. With a colt safely delivered in April 2018, Tiffany’s Honour was sent to Keeneland that November with a Medaglia d’Oro cover, and realized $2.2 million from Katsumi Yoshida.
Her War Front colt had been sold in the same ring a couple of months previously, for $1.1 million. Sadly he didn’t work out, vanned off the track when making his second start in a maiden claimer at Belterra Park last year. As the mare’s own track career had shown, even genes like these can slip their cogs in the wheel of fortune.
“Boy, it just shows you,” Retamoza mused. “That gene pool, it might skip one–but when it’s in place, it’s strong. I think Mr. Adam understood that and he really hung his hat on getting a Tapit from this mare. All the credit on Greatest Honour goes to Mr. Adam. He found the mare at the sale, he pursued her after the R.N.A., and he persevered after we lost her colt. He decided to see it through. That’s what makes this truly special. The plan came to fruition, and Mr. Adam did all the work himself.”
Here his patron would surely demur, because this version of events modestly passes over another key contributor to the development of Greatest Honour: Ernie Retamoza. Son of a Kentucky trainer, Retamoza has long done the groundwork on the farm–and done such a good job that Lane’s End have ended up sending some of their own young stock alongside the Courtlandt weanlings when they migrate to Ocala every winter. It was Retamoza, for instance, who broke in eventual Derby runner-up Code Of Honour (Noble Mission GB). Another elite outfit doing the same is St Elias Stable.
“That’s a big endorsement and I’m humbled by that,” admits Retamoza, who has been at Courtlandt since 1996. “I’m very hands-on, I’m there every moment. I bridle and saddle and handle as many horses a day as my help. With these young horses, it only takes one bad experience and you’re trying to fix something for two or three weeks. So we’re diligent about not making those mistakes. And I have great staff here. They know what I want, and that I’m there with them as part of the process. So, as soon as they feel like, ‘Hey, that horse didn’t have a good day,’ then I’m directly involved.
“Especially at the beginning stages, the bridling and all that stuff, it’s such a fine line. And as they develop–as they start to gain fitness and pick up the pace, and learn how to rate and relax–the biggest challenge is the mental side. So, what I always tell my guys is, ‘I want to get them fit, but I don’t want them to know they’re fit.’ That’s the key, that’s the challenge. Anybody can gallop, gallop, gallop. But there’s always so many nuances you have to see.”
It was into skilled hands, then, that the yearling Greatest Honour arrived from Lane’s End in August 2019, ready to be broken alongside the yearlings recruited at the imminent sales.
“And right off the van he was ‘as advertised’,” Retamoza recalls. “The whole package. A big, leggy, scopey, rangy horse; correct, well-made, good bone, everything. We were excited. And he took the breaking fine, took to the training great. No issues at all. And as we got into January, February, March, when we start to get a little more serious, he was always a horse that had high energy. Always wanted to do more than you wanted–and I don’t mean that in a bad way. You’d pull up after a mile, mile-and-a-quarter gallop, and he’d always be like: ‘That all we’re doing today?’”
Retamoza has been around enough good horses to recognize what he saw here.
“Code of Honor was very, very similar,” he remarked. “You could never do enough with him in the morning. And once he got to breezing, you could almost see it: ‘Yeah, this is what I was meant to do.’ Greatest Honour was more imposing, as an individual; Code of Honor was a little smaller in stature, lighter in frame. But we knew he was a runner. Horses are different in terms of pedigree, how they’re made, how they move. But what’s always a great sign is the horse that meets you at the webbing every morning, ears forward, what’s going on.”
The next stage of Greatest Honour’s education took him to Fair Hill, where Shug McGaughey inducts juveniles into his program. And, as it happens, this was another respect in which the sails of this horse–as one of relatively few homebreds these days broken alongside the sales athletes–have been filled with a wind of change at Courtlandt. Because it was just around this time that the track division was transferred (while stressing undiminished regard for previous trainer Mark Hennig) to McGaughey.
There was, of course, already a relationship through Lane’s End, all parties having seen things fall into place with Code Of Honor.
“The Phipps family had started to sell some yearlings, and we thought it might be an opportune time,” Retamoza says. “We had a little bit of a record, breaking here at the farm for Mr. Farish, and so it just like a natural fit. We reached out to Shug, and he was able to come and look at our young ones. We didn’t want him to take anything he didn’t want. We didn’t know the situation on numbers or anything. We just let Shug dictate that and it’s worked out beautiful.”
McGaughey now has around 10 for Courtlandt, while others are stabled with Steve Asmussen. And the new regime has certainly landed running.
“Greatest Honour was only in Fair Hill about a month before Shug moved him to Belmont,” Retamoza says. “Tapit has a bit of a reputation for horses that can be a little challenging, and I think at Fair Hill he was bored, wanting to do more. So, I really credit the job Shug has done getting him to this point, in terms of the mental side. Even going into this race, Shug felt like the horse was still just figuring it all out. I think that speaks volumes for how much better he can be, and that’s exciting.”
Hence the old-school grounding for Greatest Honour, who started out by closing from off the pace in a couple of sprints before stretching out to duel with Known Agenda (Curlin) at Aqueduct and then breaking his maiden on his fourth start at Gulfstream.
“It’s been such a good process,” Retamoza says. “I thought he grew up a ton in the race in New York, where they hooked up at the top of the lane. Very rarely do you see young maidens run that professionally for that long. And then the day he won, it wasn’t the smoothest trip, the horse on his inside had some issues and he got knocked sideways. The horse has grown up a lot and it’s just a credit to Shug. Because he didn’t put a lot of pressure on him early, didn’t ever force it.”
Unfortunately, Ten For Ten (Frosted), a $410,000 Keeneland yearling who was beaten a neck in the GII Remsen S., has required a break at the farm but there are no major issues and Retamoza believes he will resume among the good sophomores in the summer. And meanwhile he’s excited about the next batch off the belt, headlined by a $1.05 million Into Mischief filly whose third dam is Hall of Famer Personal Ensign.
“They’re doing wonderful,” Retamoza enthuses. “We do take a bit of a slower approach: bring them home, let them acclimate two or three weeks, and then begin the breaking process. And the whole time they’re getting the value of going outside every morning for two or three hours. Just now we’re beginning to stop turnout, and get them into more of a race-type program: put four shoes on them, bandages every day, all the stuff to prepare them for when it’s time to ship in April or May. But we’ve got some really nice prospects and I’m delighted with how they’ve handled everything we’ve thrown at them so far.”
Fulfilling times, then, for one so immersed in the mute, daily signaling of an adolescent racehorse.
“I work seven days a week, but it’s never like work with these young horses,” he said. “Because you’re always seeing an evolution. ‘Oh, man, that horse really is starting to figure things out.’ Or, on the flip side: ‘Why did this horse have a bad day yesterday?’ So, your mind is always working. And that’s the passion that drives you. To see them progress from day one on the farm, and then go on and turn into something on the racetrack. And when ultimately you end up with a horse like this, that’s obviously where we’re trying to get with all of them.”
And you can hear in Retamoza’s s voice just how much the blossoming of Greatest Honour means to the whole Courtlandt team.
“Mr. Adam is an absolute gentleman to work for,” he stressed. “He has been unbelievable for myself and my family. He has multiple businesses and I’m sure that all the employees would say exactly the same.
“He does everything first-class. I mean, it’s done the right way or don’t do it. And his horses are his passion. We’ve fields of horses that we bred: some raced successful, some didn’t. But they’re all right here, being taken care of. He does the right thing every step of the way–by his people, his horses and his family. All the credit goes to him: for his perseverance in the business, and the way he treats us. We’re all very excited about this horse and, hopefully, where we’re headed from here. Mr. Adam has been at this a long time and in my view there would be no better person that could have a colt like this.”