It’s not Tiz the Law’s fault that he’ll begin his Triple Crown quest under extraordinarily odd circumstances.
He did not injure his would-be rivals in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. He did not spread the virus that upended the sports calendar and eliminated the possibility of mass gatherings.
All he’s done is prove that he’s an outstanding racehorse as the world teeters around him because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We still have a very important race, and we’ve got the best 3-year-old in the country,” said NBC analyst and retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey. “Tiz the Law has been the best 3-year-old since January basically, and he remains that. He would have been favored in whatever Triple Crown race we ran first, so we have a superstar that we’re going to see on Saturday.”
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Almost nothing about the 2020 Belmont Stakes will be normal. The race will kick off the Triple Crown series instead of concluding it. It will be run at 1⅛ miles instead of the usual 1½. The massive grandstand at Belmont Park will be devoid of spectators, with even proud owners of the competing thoroughbreds barred from the premises. NBC will cover the event with announcers in four different states.
But the network is betting the race will still come across as a big deal.
“Essentially, this is the biggest event in sports in four months,” said Mike Tirico, who will host the NBC broadcast from Stamford, Connecticut.
And Tiz the Law will serve as its leading man.
For all the strangeness of this moment, he arrives on the Triple Crown stage out of a classic racing narrative. The man who spotted him at auction and prepared him for the track is 82-year-old Barclay Tagg, who hasn’t trained a star of this caliber since 2003. There are gruff horsemen and then there’s Tagg, who spent three decades banging around Maryland as a struggling trainer before he moved to New York and found a Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion named Funny Cide.
Sackatoga Stable, the group of New York racing lovers that backed Funny Cide, is the same one behind Tiz the Law.
“I figured once in a lifetime for an outfit like ours, that typically buys one horse, maybe two horses a year,” said Sackatoga’s managing partner, Jack Knowlton. “So to have it happen again, still, I wake up and kind of pinch myself and say, ‘You know what? It looks like lightning really has struck twice.’”
For 20 years, Knowlton has trusted Tagg and the trainer’s longtime assistant, Robin Smullen, to pick and nurture horses. Like everyone else, he marvels at the octogenarian’s sustained work ethic.
“He works 51 weeks a year, seven days a week without break,” Knowlton said. “I mean, he and Robin take one week off a year and go to an island in the Caribbean. And other than that, it’s the horses every day, all day.”
[ [Tiz the Law draws No. 8 post as early 6-5 Belmont favorite in reconfigured Triple Crown] ]
It’s been that way since he graduated from Penn State with a degree in animal husbandry and set up shop in Maryland in 1971. The lean years ahead hardened Tagg’s view of his vocation, which he’ll tell you is more conducive to heartache than to glory. He watched great horses win the Preakness from his favorite perch atop Barn 8 at Pimlico Race Course. But he did not delude himself that he’d train such a magnificent animal.
“I did it all the wrong way,” he said in 2003. “I just kind of jumped into it. It took forever.”
His biggest winners ran on turf, at least until he bid $75,000 on behalf of Knowlton and his partners for a cantankerous, New York-bred gelding. Funny Cide took the 2003 Kentucky Derby as a 13-1 shot and dominated a chilly, wet Preakness, winning by 9¾ lengths.
“I thought he had it in him to do that,” Tagg said afterward. “But everything went so perfectly.”
That was not the case in the Belmont Stakes. Rain intensified throughout that Saturday in New York, and with a Triple Crown on the line, Funny Cide went out fast, only to bog down late.
“I tell everybody that I’ll go to my grave wondering what might have happened had we not had a rainstorm and had a fast track that day,” Knowlton said, reflecting on the third-place finish. “Funny Cide was doing so well at that point.”
Seventeen years later, Tagg and Knowlton will have another shot in their home state, this time with a clear favorite in Tiz the Law.
As Tagg and Smullen perused prospects at the August 2018 yearling sale in Saratoga Springs — the same sale where they bought Funny Cide — both admired the bay colt’s powerful physique and the record of his mother, the late mare Tizfiz. They pulled the trigger for a modest $110,000.
Tiz the Law has already paid off that investment with four wins in five career starts, including the March 28 Florida Derby.
Bailey saw a maturing horse in that race, normally one of the most important preps for the Kentucky Derby.
“It was just a picture-perfect trip,” the Hall of Fame jockey said. “He was always in a good position up close within a few lengths but in a relaxed manner, which suggests that he has enough speed for a shorter race like the Belmont is this year, but as they go on to a mile-and-a-quarter of the Derby, he will be equally effective … His learning curve got there very quick, and he learned to do what the rider [Manuel Franco] wanted him to do.”
[ [Preakness will be third race of Triple Crown as Belmont Stakes moves to June 20] ]
Once the juggled Triple Crown schedule was set, Tiz the Law seemed headed for a Belmont showdown with three undefeated rivals: Maxfield, Nadal and Charlatan (the latter two trained by two-time Triple Crown winner Bob Baffert).
Injuries have knocked all three off the trail in recent weeks, leaving Tiz the Law as the lone star standing in a 10-horse field.
“Look, it shaped up to be just like an unbelievable superstar type of race, and the only reason it’s not as strong now was because of injuries,” Bailey said.
That doesn’t make Tiz the Law’s story any less appealing. When they’re not busy pinching themselves, Knowlton and Tagg are often asked to compare their new champion to Funny Cide, who in retirement charms racing fans as a resident attraction at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
“They are completely different horses,” Tagg said recently. “Tiz is more malleable. Funny Cide was all run. You couldn’t hold him. He was a strong horse and very tough.”
The Belmont favorite, and his trainer, have earned the respect of those who will try to topple them Saturday.
“Barclay Tagg’s a very experienced, skilled horse trainer, and I think once he knew kind of what the schedule was, he’s been focused on this,” said Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who will saddle two horses, Dr Post and Farmington Road, for the Belmont. “It looks to me like the horse is training sensationally, looks great on the race track. I think it’s not been an ideal scenario for anyone, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Barclay will have his horse ready to go.”
Unlike peers such as Pletcher and Baffert, Tagg does not bring contenders to the Triple Crown series every year. But many see Tiz the Law as just reward for his decades of toil.
NBC analyst Randy Moss joked that he’d get himself in trouble with Tagg by talking about the trainer’s age.
“If Barclay were to win the Belmont Stakes, it’s believed that he’d be the oldest trainer ever to do so,” Moss said. “He’s 82 years old, but he still trains a full complement of horses at the New York tracks. He still gets on his pony and he accompanies Tiz the Law to the track sometimes when he’s going to work out. You would never know he’s 82 years old by being around him.”
Knowlton applauded the trainer’s patience with Tiz the Law, learned through 50 years in the game.
“Barclay doesn’t get the kind of horses like Funny Cide and Tiz the Law are very often,” he said. “But when he does get an opportunity, he makes the most of it.”
152nd BELMONT STAKES
What: First leg of 2020 Triple Crown Series, 1 1/8 miles
Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.
When: Saturday, 5:42 p.m.
TV: NBC (coverage starts at 3 p.m.)
Post, horse, jockey, odds
1. Tap It To Win, John Velasquez, 6-1
2. Sole Volante,Luca Panici, 9-2
3. Max Player, Joel Rosario, 15-1
4. Modernist, Junior Alvarado, 15-1
5. Farmington Road, Javier Castellano, 15-1
6. Fore Left, Jose Ortiz, 30-1
7. Jungle Runner, Reylu Gutierrez, 50-1
8. Tiz the Law, Manny Franco, 6-5
9. Dr Post, Irad Ortiz Jr., 5-1
10. Pneumatic, Ricardo Santana Jr. 8-1
REST OF SERIES
>>Kentucky Derby, Sept. 5
>>Preakness, Oct. 3