OKAY, we know Americans struggle with their spelling, but there is a reason why Saratoga – beautiful, beloved Saratoga – is renowned as the ‘Graveyard of Favorites’.
Or, indeed, the ‘Graveyard of Champions’ – both epithets pop up with unerring regularity every time a leading contender comes unstuck in a big race, such as Midnight Bisou last weekend in the Personal Ensign, or Tom’s D’Etat in the Whitney.
More infamous examples in historical terms have come via Man o’War and Secretariat, but even more pertinent for our purposes are the notorious defeats suffered by Gallant Fox and American Pharoah.
Both Triple Crown heroes bit the dust in the Travers Stakes: Gallant Fox was stunned by 100-1 shot Jim Dandy in 1930, while American Pharoah’s legion of fans were left shell-shocked when longshot Keen Ice beat him in 2015. Keen Ice won just one more race, and that only a Grade 2 event, in 13 subsequent starts.
Saratoga’s signature event, known colloquially as the ‘midsummer derby’ is sometimes referred to as the unofficial fourth leg of the American Triple Crown. But in this topsy-turvy coronavirus-afflicted year, the Travers takes place on Saturday live on Sky Sports Racing – two weeks earlier than usual and before the first two legs of the Triple Crown have even been run.
But not before the third, the Belmont Stakes having taken place on June 20, which is where TIZ THE LAW and his owners Sackatoga Stable come into the picture. Having lived the American Dream once with Funny Cide’s unlikely Triple Crown bid in 2003, the small-scale Saratoga-based syndicate can hardly believe their good fortune in 2020.
In one of the most remarkable racing stories to emerge in an extraordinary year, the seven-horse operation are back on the Kentucky Derby trail for a second time with the colt who is now the country’s leading three-year-old. Having won the Belmont Stakes, he is sure to start favourite on home territory for the Travers.
“What’s the old adage about lightning striking twice?” says Sackatoga’s managing partner Jack Knowlton, who became a familiar figure on the US racing scene as Funny Cide charged through the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
“I wake up every day and ask myself, ‘Is this for real?’ You can’t believe a little stable like ours that typically buys one, maybe two, horses a year and don’t spend a lot of money, can be in this position. Never in the world did I believe I’d have another horse to at least start on the trail of the Triple Crown.”
Like Funny Cide, Tiz The Law is a New York-bred son of Constitution, relatively cheaply bought – $110,000 is very much at the upper end of their budget – whose career is supervised by the syndicate’s longserving trainer, that deadpan octogenarian Barclay Tagg. (“I wanted to have a Belmont victory before I gave it up or died,” was the 82-year-old’s response when Tiz The Law claimed the New York Classic.)
In that sense Tiz The Law has succeeded where his hugely popular predecessor came unstuck. Funny Cide missed out on the Triple Crown when he finished third behind Empire Maker at Belmont Stakes, whereas Tiz The Law has already won the Belmont Stakes, albeit a New York Classic run at three furlongs shorter than its usual mile-and-a-half trip.
“Now between those two horses we’ve won all three legs of the Triple Crown,” Knowlton adds, almost aghast. “Our trainer is one of only four contemporary trainers who has won all three races alongside Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert and Nick Zito!”
He seems incredulous, adding: “For us to be in the middle of this again, spending as little as we do and only racing New York-breds to compete against all the big-money owners in the world trying to win these races … well, it is pretty amazing.”
Hopefully the story isn’t over yet. Even before he runs in the Travers, Tiz The Law is in pole position for the rearranged Kentucky Derby – on the first Saturday in September rather than the first Saturday in May – after which comes the Preakness four weeks later.
It is a Triple Crown like no other in a year like no other – and it might be a three-year-old campaign like no other. “He’s the only one that’s still alive in the Triple Crown chase this year so I just hope he stays healthy and sound and gets the opportunity to run in those races,” says Knowlton.
First, though, comes the Travers Stakes, where Tiz The Law must bid to overcome the alleged ‘graveyard’ curse. Knowlton doesn’t sound too concerned. “The Travers Stakes is important to us and he looks like a horse who’s prepared for his next battle,” says the 73-year-old. “It’s in our backyard and it’s the track he’s trained on as a two-year-old and where he broke his maiden.
“I’ve lived in Saratoga for 35 years unfortunately Funny Cide got sick and couldn’t run in the Travers, which was my biggest disappointment with him other than not winning the Belmont.”
Ah yes, Funny Cide: what a wild ride that must have been for everyone concerned. The gelding was only the eighth horse ever purchased by Knowlton and his old high-school buddies from Sackets Harbor, on the eastern edge of Lake Ontario.
He was to take them to racing’s giddiest heights – a location his ten owners famously attained via an old yellow schoolbus. “That was one of the things that really defined him and Sackatoga Stable,” Knowlton recalls.
“The story behind that was that we needed a way to get from the hotel in downtown Louisville to the racetrack and one of my partners talked to the hotel and they said they could get us a bus for $3,600.”
That sounded like a lot of money, so instead they got the schoolbus for $1,300. “By the time we got to the Preakness we had two schoolbuses and when we got to the Belmont to try to win the Triple Crown, we had four.”
After Funny Cide exited the stage, Sackatoga Stable became more businesslike with a “second iteration” founded alongside marketing director Ed Mitzer at the helm. A couple of people in the Funny Cide syndicate died, while others dropped out while more have come aboard.
A total of 35 are now involved in the Tiz The Law syndicate, with Knowlton and Lew Titterton still there from the Funny Cide days.
For such an enthusiastic bunch of owners, not being present for Tiz The Law’s triumphs behind-closed-doors is an obvious disappointment.
“We’ve missed two G1 wins,” says Knowlton. “I have a condominium in Florida one mile from Gulfstream Park and watched the Florida Derby on TV!
“But at least at this point it does look as if eight of us will be allowed to watch the Travers live, and now the plan is to allow limited numbers of fans for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, though unfortunately there’s been a resurgence of the virus in parts of the country.”
Either way, Knowlton is grateful for this second circuit of the Triple Crown carousel. “Given the circumstances we have with the virus, to have an opportunity to have something with such joy in your life really means a lot,” he says.
“People are already calling him a New York thoroughbred hero because he was the first New York-bred in 138 Yeats to win the Belmont Stakes,” he adds. “We’re proud of that and hope we can keep the ride going.”
And, assuming the Sackatoga team can get back to the track, what about the schoolbus?
“The schoolbus will come out of storage in Louisville if we get back to the Derby with Tiz The Law after he runs in the Travers,” says Knowlton. “That’s a Derby deal!”