Tiz the Law has taught Barclay Tagg not to worry — at least not much.
And that’s saying something for an 82-year-old horse trainer who’s seen every bum foot, muddy track and gate mishap his sport can dish out. Thoroughbred racing is a wasteland for optimists, but the right champion can turn all that misfortune on its head.
Tiz the Law, the Belmont Stakes winner and heavy favorite for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, might just be such a horse.
Triple Crown watchers saw it June 20 at Belmont Park, where he needed just a few strides at the top of the stretch to erase the hopes of nine other capable thoroughbreds.
NBC analyst Randy Moss saw it a month ago at Saratoga Race Course, where Tiz the Law pulled away from the rest of a solid Travers Stakes field even as jockey Manny Franco throttled him down from peak acceleration.
“Watching Tiz the Law win the Travers Stakes, to me was reminiscent of some of American Pharoah’s best races,” Moss said, drawing a comparison to the majestic 2015 Triple Crown winner. “When you think back on American Pharoah in the Haskell, after he swept the Triple Crown, he gave you that quick burst of acceleration to just break a race wide open. He gave you that wow factor, and then he just completely sort of eased up the last part of the race and won with something left. That’s exactly what Tiz the Law did in the Travers.”
Which is why Tagg has told reporters he’s not all that stirred up about the 17 other contenders in the Derby field or about the No. 17 starting post, from which no horse has ever won the coveted race. He’s trained many horses since he entered the game in 1971, including 2003 Derby and Preakness champion Funny Cide, but Tiz the Law might be the first with answers to every question.
“Everything just kind of falls into place with him,” said Tagg, who began his career as a small-time trainer in Maryland.
From its Sept. 5 run date to its middle position in the Triple Crown series to the absence of spectators on the grounds at Churchill Downs, little about the 2020 Derby feels normal. Protesters demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old Black woman killed by police in her Louisville apartment in March, have provided steady reminders of the unsettled world outside the track.
Moss called it “hands down the most unique Kentucky Derby that not only me, but pretty much anybody else has ever experienced.”
But one thing the coronavirus pandemic cannot ruin is the excitement that builds among hardcore racing fans when a great horse comes down the pike. That’s why Tiz the Law is the dominant story headed into this year’s race.
Though favorites have fared well at the Derby over the past decade, the race is usually a collision of gifted hopefuls with limited experience. Because of the postponement from May 2 to Labor Day weekend, however, Tiz the Law arrives as a more seasoned competitor who’s already viewed as a serious threat to become the 14th Triple Crown winner in history. With 3-5 odds, he’s the heaviest morning-line favorite at the Derby since 1989. By comparison, the last two Triple Crown winners, Justify and American Pharoah, were 3-1 and 5-2 morning-line favorites, respectively.
Those who’ve studied and worked with those recent champions did not hesitate to place Tiz the Law in their class.
Hall of Fame jockey and NBC analyst Jerry Bailey called him “one of those uniquely special horses.”
“He has no tactical weaknesses,” Bailey said. “He doesn’t have the crowd to contend with, and he’s already answered the question of the distance by winning the Travers at 1¼ miles. He’s checked all those boxes, and I believe he very well could win the Triple Crown this year.”
Starlight Racing founder Jack Wolf, who co-owned Justify and will send Authentic into the Derby this year, agreed that Tiz the Law could join the exclusive club of 3-year-olds who’ve won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. If he wins Saturday, he would get his chance to complete the trifecta Oct. 3 at Pimlico Race Course.
“I think he’s probably quite capable of doing it,” Wolf said.
There are three main factors that could lead to an upset: weather, post position and competition.
On the first issue, Tagg has acknowledged that Tiz the Law is unproven, even in training, over a muddy track. But the National Weather Service is calling for warm, clear conditions in Louisville all weekend, so that question will likely have to wait for another day.
On the second issue, Tiz the Law will start far outside from a post that’s never produced a Derby winner. But past champions, including American Pharoah, have done fine from similar spots, and Tiz the Law has broken cleanly in all four of his victories this year.
“I like being on the outside,” Tagg said. “I didn’t particularly want to be out that far but he seems to handle everything that’s thrown at him so we’ll just have to leave it up to him. It gives you a chance, if you have any speed at all, it gives you a chance to get a better position.”
As for the third issue, Tiz the Law does not have a clear rival among the horses that will oppose him Saturday. The expected second choice in the morning line, Art Collector, was scratched because of a minor foot injury that will sideline him until the Preakness. Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia showed his lack of esteem for the rest of the field when he listed just two other horses, Honor A.P. and Authentic, at less than 15-1 morning-line odds.
Bob Baffert, who’s won the Derby five times and will saddle two horses in Saturday’s race, has referred to Tiz the Law as “the one we all have to beat.”
“His style just makes it so easy for him and his rider,” Bailey said. “He always breaks well. He’s got tactical speed. So he can get the jockey out of about any situation that he finds himself in, which makes it easier on the horse in the end. The less problems horses have during races, the more consistent they’re going to be, and he’s certainly been consistent.”
With such superlatives flying, it’s easy to think past the Derby to Tiz the Law’s possible attempt for a Triple Crown in the Oct. 3 Preakness. Already, analysts and historians are discussing how they would put such an achievement in context, given the scrambled schedule, the elongated times between races and the shorter distance of the 2020 Belmont Stakes, which covered 1⅛ miles instead of the usual 1½ .
“Is it fair? Probably not,” Moss said. “The horse has done everything that’s been asked of him. And, oh, by the way, he won the Travers Stakes in between the Belmont and the Derby, so it’s almost like a quadruple crown. Could he go 1½ miles if asked against these horses? Probably so. It’s just unfortunate for the horse that he’s going to have a COVID asterisk if he sweeps the Triple Crown.”
Tagg doesn’t seem to care about asterisks or the absence of the usual festive atmosphere at this year’s Derby. He stepped into political controversy Tuesday when he said: “I don’t know what these guys are going to do, these rioters. … All I know is you’re not allowed to shoot them, and they’re allowed to shoot you.”
But for him, the story comes back to unflappable Tiz the Law, who erases all doubts with his talent.
“We had the pandemic and we had the riots, or we have the political stuff. And it’s just a sad time for America right now, unfortunately, but I’m sure we will come out of it. We’ve come out of worse,” Tagg said. “And I can’t really complain because he wins. So, I’m very pleased with the way he does it. And I can’t complain about the quiet or anything else. I mean, he goes out there and does his job and that’s the main thing.”
146th Kentucky Derby
at Churchill Downs
Saturday, 7:01 p.m.
TV: NBC (Coverage starts at 2:30 p.m.)
Next in Triple Crown series: Preakness, Oct. 3