Derek Merkler and Tyler’s Tribe (Kelsey Berry Photography)
By Amber Joyce
The early months of 2020 marked the beginning of a number of things; the beginning of a decade, the rise of a deadly, little-known disease named Coronavirus, the dramatic transformation of the lives of millions around the globe. One thing remained the same, though.
Every year, starting in January, thousands of Thoroughbred racehorses enter the world. According to The Jockey Club, the North American foal crop in 2020 totaled an estimated 20,500. In the United States alone, approximately 19,025 were foaled. One of these many foals began his life on February 17th, 2020, foaled by Dnace Thoroughbreds, Ltd in Nevada, Iowa. His name? Tyler’s Tribe.
With his dark bay, almost-black coloring, his three white feet, and a big white diamond on his forehead, he had largely inherited the looks of his sire, Sharp Azteca. On the track, Sharp Azteca amassed earnings of $2,406,740, winning five graded stakes, including the 2017 edition of the Grade 1 Cigar Mile. After his successful racing career, the son of Freud began his job as a stallion at Three Chimneys Farm; his first foals hit the ground in 2020.
Tyler’s Tribe’s dam was a chestnut New York-bred mare named Impazible Woman. She wasn’t nearly as successful as Sharp Azteca on the track, winning just once in eleven starts, her earnings totaling just $57,283. The daughter of Mission Impazible was unsuccessful in her two tries following her lone victory and connections ultimately decided she was better suited to be a broodmare.
Maureen Merkler, the owner and operator of Clifton Farm LLC since 2006, acquired Impazible Woman sometime in late 2018/early 2019. In January of 2019, Merkler’s son Derek saw the mare for the first time and was “…immediately smitten.” So smitten, in fact, that on one cold winter afternoon while mucking stalls, he offered to go in on the mare for 50%. A deal was struck and for the fifth time, Derek Merkler became the breeder of a racehorse.
Tyler’s Tribe was Impazible Woman’s firstborn, and according to Derek Merkler, he was an easygoing foal and weanling, though Merkler wasn’t involved with him regularly until late 2020.
Merkler soon developed a close bond with the colt. They trusted each other, and Merkler was never worried that his equine pal would try anything dangerous with him; he followed his lead.
One of the proudest moments Merkler had with “The Sharp Azteca Colt” was walking him onto the trailer for the first time:
“Maureen had tried that once already with him and he didn’t take to it too well and never got into the trailer,” he recalled. “With me, while tentative, he was completely trusting and I coaxed him into the trailer for the first time much more easily than we expected.”
Merkler added, “For most of your readers, that’s nothing. But I’m proud of that particular accomplishment, given that it was a first for me.”
Given his early birthday and his size, Tyler’s Tribe was aimed for the Fasig-Tipton July Sale as a yearling. Ultimately he was rejected and instead headed to Des Moines, Iowa for the ITBOA (Iowa Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association) Fall Mixed Sale in September.
Tom Lepic was one of the prospective buyers looking through the catalogue that Fall.
A seasoned realtor and retired wrestling coach, Lepic has been part of the racing industry for nearly half a century. In 2021, he was inducted into the Prairie Meadows Hall of Fame and serves as the president of the Iowa Quarter Horse Racing Association.
Quarter Horses have been Lepic’s specialty and he has owned some outstanding ones, including 3x AQHA Champion Aged Mare and Aged Horse, Spit Curl Diva, as well as The Fiscal Cliff, AQHA Champion Aged Stallion. He is also the co-breeder of Corona’s First Diva, who was the AQHA Champion Two-Year-Old Filly in 2016.
Lepic isn’t unfamiliar with Thoroughbreds, however, and immediately fell in love with one specific one while looking through the pre-sale photos and videos for the 2021 ITBOA Fall Mixed Sale.
The horse? Hip 38, a dark bay son of first-crop stallion Sharp Azteca. Tyler’s Tribe.
Everything about this colt caught Lepic’s eye; his walk, his conformation, his breeding, his size. “I thought he looked very confident!” Lepic told me.
Quoted by Thoroughbred Daily News, Lepic said: “You won’t see many yearlings anywhere who looked better than he did. He just stood out.”
After many replays of Tyler’s Tribe’s pre-sale video, Lepic called up Tim Martin (longtime trainer in the Midwest), told him he wanted to buy the unnamed yearling, and asked Martin if he would like to be his partner. Lepic and Martin then went to the pre-sale viewing and Martin agreed that Tyler’s Tribe was an outstanding horse. He remarked to Lepic that the colt “…might just be the real deal!”
The duo decided they would try to purchase him, and were fortunate to succeed at $34,000.
Now that the yearling was bought, he needed a name.
On August 27th, 2020, Tom Lepic’s young grandson, Tyler James Juhl, was diagnosed with leukemia. Lepic decided to name his brand new colt in honor of little Tyler. He named him Tyler’s Tribe.
“When I first told Tyler I bought a horse and named him Tyler’s Tribe, [He] was a little emotional,” Lepic said. “He has always enjoyed going to the track with his family and watching ‘Papa’s’ horses run. Now it was going to be even more fun!”
Lepic told Tyler that he “…really thought we’d found ‘a racehorse’ for him,” and Lepic wasn’t alone in those thoughts. After part-owner Tim Martin broke Tyler’s Tribe and began training him (eventually working him with older horses because he was “…romping the babies”), he called Lepic and told him that he thought their bargain purchase was ‘going to be something special.’
Those thoughts were echoed once again, this time by twenty-year-old apprentice jockey Kylee Jordan, who said that he was “very nice to get on…” the first time she rode him in the morning. “[He was] just super classy and didn’t get worked up about nothing, and he was just really nice.”
An experience behind the starting gate one morning cinched his specialness for Jordan. They were waiting on company to join them on a gate work. They ended up standing behind the gate for twenty minutes or so and Tyler’s Tribe “…just stood there with his ears pricked.”
‘The real deal!’
With no starts under his belt, Tyler’s Tribe needed to prove that those accolades were true, and a date with nine fellow Iowa-bred maidens on June 20th, 2022 was his chance. The now gelded two-year-old would travel four and a half furlongs over the Prairie Meadows oval for his debut.
Wearing his signature red blinkers, Tyler’s Tribe rocketed to the lead from the widest draw and was two lengths in front as the field reached the turn. Rounding the turn, he drifted out four paths and it almost looked like Sangria Sky, who had been chasing from second, had a shot at passing him. But quickly Tyler’s Tribe straightened out again and responded willingly when jockey Kylee Jordan asked him for more. His lead increased substantially with each stride.
Three and a half lengths.
The winning margin ended up being a whopping sixteen and three-quarter lengths. Tyler’s Tribe and Kylee Jordan stopped the clock in 52.12 after a quarter in 22.82 and the half in 46.09.
“…he went out there and ran like [he’d run] a hundred times,” Jordan remarked.
Before the race, Tom Lepic had told grandson Tyler that Tyler’s Tribe “…was going to be very fast and run well.” After the race, with family and friends looking on, Tyler gave his grandpa a big hug and exclaimed, “Wow, Papa. You were right, he is fast!”
Following Tyler’s Tribe’s imposing debut victory, connections decided to try him in the $100,000 Prairie Gold Juvenile on July 9th, the second juvenile stakes race of the Prairie Meadows meet.
Top Recruit, who next-out boasted a gritty win in the Ellis Park Juvenile, was favored come post time and looked like the biggest threat to Tyler’s Tribe. The Mike Maker trainee was coming into the Prairie Gold Juvenile off of a wire-to-wire debut score at Churchill Downs. Two other speedy maiden winners were also giving the race a try, Toddchero and Undalay.
Preceding the Grade 3 Iowa Oaks and subsequent Iowa Derby and Grade 3 Cornhusker, the Prairie Gold Juvenile was slated as the sixth race on the 10-race Saturday program.
Eight juveniles took their spots in the starting gate for the five-and-a-half furlong contest, and in complete contrast to his previous start, Tyler’s Tribe drew the rail.
From his ground-saving draw, Tyler’s Tribe wasted no time snatching the lead. Toddchero and Undalay were also forwardly placed but Tyler’s Tribe was quickly two lengths in front, zipping through the opening quarter in 22.07 seconds. He ran the half in 45.16, and at that point, it was (if it wasn’t already) obvious that once again, nobody was catching him.
Track announcer Bobby Neuman estimated that the leading margin was six lengths at the five-eighths, clocked in a speedy 57.20. Tyler’s Tribe extended his lead willingly and strode away to an eight-and-a-half-length triumph, becoming Sharp Azteca’s first stakes winner. The final time was 1:03.64.
Following Tyler’s Tribe’s stakes graduation, offers to buy him started to roll in. Tom Lepic immediately decided that it didn’t matter what offers they got; they weren’t selling him. The gelding meant too much to him and was simply too much of a blessing.
Tim Martin had no desire to sell him either, as he was “…the best horse he’s ever trained.”
So they ignored the offers and started planning out where to head next. With an undefeated, now stakes-winning two-year-old, why not go for another stakes score?
On July 30th, exactly three weeks after he earned black-type, Tyler’s Tribe was ready to rumble in the $70,000 Iowa Stallion Futurity, restricted to Iowa-bred horses. Four of his five rivals were recent debut winners but none of them as impressive as him and none with a stakes win on their resume. As a result, Tyler’s Tribe went off as the deservedly heavy favorite at 1/9.
Breaking from the rail draw for the second time in a row, he sped to the lead in a handful of strides. One of the recent debut winners, Ain’t So Bad, pressured him from the outside but Tyler’s Tribe maintained a length advantage, galloping through the quarter in 22.35.
He began to draw away from the rest of the field midway around the turn and was in front by at least five lengths into the stretch, running the half in 45.66. After a single right-handed tap with the whip and five-eighths sprinted in 57.76, Tyler’s Tribe won by twelve and a half lengths.
1:04.18 was the final time for the five-and-a-half furlong distance.
When asked what he had to say about Tyler’s Tribe in a post-race interview, Tim Martin simply answered, “He’s quite a runner.”
“I can’t come up with the words to describe it,” he went on to say. “There’s little Tyler. And Kylee– I’ve known her family a long time. I don’t know. It’s overwhelming. We knew he was a good horse from the start. He’s just exceeded our expectations.”
A perfect three-for-three with earnings of over $150,000 and a total winning margin of a combined thirty-seven lengths, Tyler’s Tribe’s next destination was the six-furlong $100,000 Prairie Meadows Freshmen Stakes on August 27th. Only three were brave enough to face him.
Coming in from Canterbury Park was Runtoday, who had won his debut by five lengths a month prior. Then there was Dixiemagic, who had romped in his Prairie Meadows debut by ten and three-quarter lengths. Echo Canyon, another Prairie Meadows debut winner, rounded out the field. Their bravery was respected but it was clear they’d be running for place and show.
As expected, Tyler’s Tribe shot out of the gate like a bullet from his outside draw in the four-horse field. Briefly, Dixiemagic put his nose in front but Tyler’s Tribe was having none of that; without being asked, he quickly spurted to lead by a length, hurrying through the quarter in 21.86. His lead had extended to five lengths as the 44.33 for the half was posted.
The Iowan wunderkind swung for home and was in front by eight lengths a furlong from the wire, five-eighths run in 56.56. Kylee Jordan tapped him once right-handed and off he went, capturing his third stakes victory by fifteen and a half lengths in a swift 1:09.83.
The entirety of Tyler’s Tribe’s journey had been emotional for his connections and their families, and his commanding performance in the Freshman was definitely no exception.
“There were 120 to 150 people there. That (win) photo was filled up,” Tim Martin told Daily Racing Form. “They were ecstatic, there were tears everywhere, it was crazy. The families of the boys, Kylee’s family… it just about made me cry.”
And what contributed to such emotion? For breeder Derek Merkler, the win came on his 35th birthday. It was the first time he physically stood in the winner’s circle as breeder or owner. That already-special experience was made even more special due to Tyler’s Tribe being the first stakes winner Merkler ever bred.
August 27th, 2022 was also an anniversary— the two-year anniversary of Tyler James Juhl’s leukemia diagnosis. “He’s doing great,” is what Tom Lepic said about his grandson in an interview after the race. “He’s beating the battle.”
“Tyler has been such a trooper throughout his illness. We wanted to give him some fun and excitement this summer and we couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
If all goes to plan, there will be even more fun and excitement for Tyler and his ‘Tribe’ come November. On the very same day his star two-year-old elevated his record to a perfect four-for-four, Tim Martin sent in his application for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
The goal? Bringing Tyler’s Tribe down to Kentucky for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint at Keeneland.
Everybody loves to watch the underdog take on the big boys, but there’s always the question: “Is he good enough?” That isn’t the only question Tyler’s Tribe has hovering over him.
A juvenile dirt sprint race is where Tyler’s Tribe would ideally be sent. Unfortunately, though, there is no such Breeders’ Cup race in existence. That means trying grass for the first time which of course is a question mark. But Tim Martin isn’t too concerned, citing that Sharp Azteca has had some impressive winners on the turf (Sharp Aza Tack to name one).
“Can he win outside of Iowa?” is another question raised. Martin isn’t concerned about that either, saying “I think he’s going to be fine.”
A start in the Breeders’ Cup alone would be huge. A win in the Breeders’ Cup, however, would be absolutely history-making if Tyler’s Tribe were to pull it off. Namely, he was born in Iowa.
Iowa-breds have tried Grade 1 competition before (most recently, Ain’t Life Grand gave the Travers a try) but historically, they have never won a graded stakes race outside of their home state. The best an Iowa-bred has ever run in a graded stakes race not in Iowa was second, when Auberge ran in the Grade 2 Santa Ynez in 2020 at Santa Anita Park.
There is also history to be made where Kylee Jordan— who will retain the mount on Tyler’s Tribe should he run in the Breeders’ Cup— is concerned. In the many years since its 1984 inauguration, an apprentice jockey has never won a Breeders’ Cup race.
Jordan, who started her career as a jockey in May of 2021, will look to turn the tables and stamp her name in horse racing history. Tom Lepic and Tim Martin could have given the mount to a more experienced jockey but they’re perfectly comfortable letting Jordan stay aboard Tyler’s Tribe, who she says is her “…most favorite horse I’ve rode.”
Update: Kylee Jordan loses the bug on September 17th; she won’t be an apprentice come Breeders’ Cup time.
“I feel like she knows the horse and he knows her,” Martin stated. “I prefer to stay with her.”
Tyler’s Tribe will make his next start in the $100,000 Iowa Cradle on October 1st, Iowa Classic Night at Prairie Meadows. If everything goes well there, it’s from Iowa to the Breeders’ Cup.
A huge thank you to everyone who made this story possible and everyone involved with Tyler’s Tribe: Derek Merkler, Tom Lepic, Tim Martin, Christa Jordan, Kylee Jordan, Brandi Jo Fett, Tyler James Juhl + family, and of course, Tyler’s Tribe. It’s an honor to share this story with the world.
— Amber Joyce