Ridgefielder Spearman has vested interest in Kentucky Derby

When the field enters the starting gate at this year's Kentucky Derby, Brian Spearman will have a good reason to be among the most nervous and excited onlookers.

He has a horse in the race.

Spearman, a Ridgefield resident, is the chairman of Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, which has a substantial ownership stake in Tapwrit, an imposing three-year-old colt that is virtually guaranteed of a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby.

With seven qualifying races remaining, Tapwrit has 54 points and is third on the points leaderboard. All horses with 50 or more points have qualified for the Derby since the system was introduced in 2013.

“I’m sure it will be a mix of heightened emotions right before the race starts,” said Spearman, whose son, Aidan, is a senior at Ridgefield High and was a standout defensive back on the football team that made it to the Class LL state finals last fall. “Tapwrit has run really well this year, so we have high hopes for the Derby, even though there will be several other strong contenders in the field.”

Although he was raised in horse-centric Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and worked summers at the Saratoga Race Course during college, Spearman is a relative newcomer professionally. He worked for more than 30 years at PepsiCo, rising to senior vice president, before recently retiring from the company.

“I began to dabble in horse ownership as a limited partner with Cot Campbell’s Dogwood Stable while I was still working at Pepsi,” said Spearman. “When Dogwood merged with Eclipse, I met Aron Wellman, the president and co-founder of Eclipse. His other co-founder had left and they were looking for someone who loved horses and had more of a business background. It really just came all together for me.”

Wellman, the son of horse owners and breeders near Fresno, Calif., co-founded Eclipse in 2011 after leaving his first career as a lawyer. “Aron has a great eye for spotting talented young horses — Eclipse had a smaller ownership stake in Destin, which ran in last year’s Kentucky Derby (finishing sixth) and was second at the Belmont Stakes,” said Spearman. “His parents knew several outstanding jockeys, including Willie Shoemaker, who Aron got to learn from.”

Wellman was the one who noticed Tapwrit at the Saratoga Yearling Sale in 2015. “The price was 1.2 million, so we definitely needed some other investors,” said Spearman.

Two other partners — Robert LaPenta and Bridlewood Farm — joined Eclipse for the purchase, and Tapwrit was sent to work with Todd Pletcher, the owner of Todd Pletcher Racing Stables, Inc., and arguably the country’s most acclaimed trainer.

Tapwrit made his racing debut with a 10th-place finish as a two-year-old last September in Saratoga and then won his final two starts of 2016 in Florida, including a victory at the Pulpit Stakes.

Tapwrit began the 2017 season by placing second to highly regarded McCraken at the Sam F. Davis Stakes in Tampa, Fla., last month and followed with a convincing win at the Tampa Bay Derby on March 11. Tapwrit finished six-and-a-half lengths ahead of runner-up Wild Shot and set a new race record with a time of 1:42.36.

“It was an amazing performance to witness in person,” said Spearman. “That win really opened eyes and boosted Tapwrit’s reputation.”

With Kentucky Derby qualification all but assured, Tapwrit will make just one more start — at the Toyota Bluegrass Stakes on April 8 at Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Ky. — before heading to nearby Churchill Downs for the first race of the Triple Crown on Saturday, May 6.

“So much goes into qualifying for the Derby and then staying healthy and preparing” said Spearman. “After all that, the race is two minutes long and anything can happen.”

For Spearman and the rest of the Eclipse team, one outcome is preferable: Seeing Tapwrit in the winner’s circle, bedecked in roses, the 2017 Kentucky Derby champion.