Tiz the Law favorite for Belmont, Triple Crown

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While there won’t be school buses of fans hoping to see a New York-bred horse make Belmont history, there is a busload of Triple Crown expectations heading into Saturday’s race (start time is 2:45 to 6 p.m. ET, NBC).

NBC is home to the 152nd Belmont Stakes, providing comprehensive race coverage and analysis live on TV and NBCSports.com before, during and after the main event. Coverage runs from 2:45 p.m. to 6 p.m. on NBC, just hours after NBC’s coverage of the final day of the Royal Ascot in England. Stream the 2020 Belmont Stakes here.

Seventeen years ago, Jack Knowlton and the other owners of Funny Cide packed into school buses and headed to Belmont Park in New York, hoping to see the horse capture the home-track victory they had dreamed of. It didn’t happen. Now, however, Tiz the Law looks every bit like the best 3-year-old in the world and could deliver his owners and trainer Barclay Tagg the elusive crown.

RELATED: Belmont Stakes 2020 — what to know

It’ll take something spectacular Saturday from a watered-down field to prevent the Triple Crown favorite from becoming the first New York bred to win the Belmont in over 130 years and taking a powerful stride toward the Kentucky Derby.

“Barclay doesn’t get the kind of horses like Funny Cide and Tiz the Law very often, but when he does get an opportunity, he makes the most of it,” Knowlton said. “Fortunately, Tiz the Law is the kind of horse that seems to take everything in stride and he’s very easy to work with. … From all indications, he’s doing as well as he’s been doing all year, and hopefully that’ll carry over into the Belmont.”

Tiz the Law won his two starts this year by a combined 7¼ lengths, including the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 28. He’s the class of the Belmont after injuries to Bob Baffert-trained Nadal and Charlatan and other defections in a year the coronavirus pandemic pushed the Kentucky Derby back to Sept. 5 and the Preakness to Oct. 3.

RELATED: How to watch Belmont Stakes 2020

“Tiz the Law has been the best 3-year-old since January basically and he remains that,” retired jockey-turned-NBC Sports analyst Jerry Bailey said Tuesday. “He would’ve been favored in whatever Triple Crown race we ran first first, so we have a superstar that we’re going to see on Saturday.”

It’s an unconventional schedule with the three Triple Crown races being held out of their normal order. The Belmont is being run at 1 1/8 miles instead of a mile and a half and the traditional third jewel is leading off the series for the first time.

But Tagg, 82, has Tiz the Law primed for this moment.

“Barclay Tagg is 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 rival trainer Todd Pletcher, who is expected to challenge Tiz the Law with Dr Post and Farmington Road. “It looks to me like the horse is training sensationally. He looks great on the race track. I think it’s not been an ideal scenario for anyone, but I think there’s no doubt in my mind that Barclay will have his horse ready to go.”

Tagg got Funny Cide ready in 2003 when he won the Derby and Preakness before finishing third in the Belmont. He also learned a lesson from Funny Cide’s blazing — probably too fast — final pre-Belmont workout. So over the weekend, Tagg restrained Tiz the Law to a relaxing breeze.

Perhaps that’s also a product of the two horses’ differences in personality. Tagg said: “‘Tiz’ is more malleable. Funny Cide was all run. You couldn’t hold him.”

RELATED: Belmont Stakes odds, post positions

Knowlton recalls Tagg’s assistant trainer, Robin Smullen, being the only one who could handle the stubborn Funny Cide. Now, jockey Manny Franco can maneuver Tiz the Law all over the track with ease.

“He’s a different horse altogether,” Knowlton said. “He’s a much lower key, very easy to handle, does anything you want him to do.”

That was on display in the Florida Derby when Franco guided Tiz the Law from a perfect stalking position to a thunderous run past other horses down the stretch. Franco said Tiz the Law “makes my work a lot easier.”

“The Florida Derby, he was much more receptive to the jockey coaxing him back off of the early leaders, which makes him more effective and he certainly was,” said Bailey, who has won the Belmont twice. “It was just a picture-perfect trip.”

Tiz the Law would be the first New York-bred colt to win the Belmont since Forrester in 1882. It would also complete Tagg’s personal Triple Crown, which Knowlton hopes would get the veteran trainer some Hall of Fame consideration.

That would certainly be true if Tiz the Law dominates the Belmont and possibly the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in early August, then moves forward to run for the roses at Churchill Downs.

Following the organic 2003 tradition when late co-owner Dave Mann rented a school bus to go from the hotel to the track, Tiz the Law’s Sackatoga Stable owners might again be riding high the first Saturday in September.

“Everybody expects that if we can get back to the Derby, we’ll be in the school bus,” Knolwton quipped, “and maybe two because of social distancing.”

They never figured to be warming up the bus again a generation later. But after buying Tiz the Law for $110,000 at the same upstate New York yearling sale they got Funny Cide, it’s another Triple Crown ride worth getting excited about.

“I figure once in a lifetime for an outfit like ours,” Knowlton said. “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.’”

Watch the 2020 Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 20 from 2:45 p.m. to 6 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. 

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

bob baffert
Sam Upshaw Jr./USA TODAY NETWORK
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”

Pegasus races planned for Gulfstream and Santa Anita in 2024

Horse racing on Opening day of the winter-spring meet at Santa Anita Park.
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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – After seven Pegasus World Cup events, it’s evidently time for change.

1/ST Racing, which has hosted the entirety of the Pegasus series to this point at Gulfstream Park, is planning for two Pegasus days in 2024 – one at Gulfstream and the other at Santa Anita. Details aren’t finalized and it’s unclear how it would fit in the racing calendar, but 1/ST is planning for both dirt and turf Pegasus races as part of the Santa Anita program.

Gulfstream played host to the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on the dirt Saturday, along with the $1 million Pegasus Turf and the $500,000 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf.

“I’d really love to see that we bring it to the West Coast,” 1/ST President and CEO Belinda Stronach said. “That will probably happen in 2024. What we did this year for 2023 was said, `OK, we have a number of great race days, let’s coordinate those better and call it the 1/ST Racing Tour and recognize great achievements within our own footprint.”

Saturday marked the first stop on that new 1/ST Racing Tour. Along with some of the biggest race days at 1/ST tracks – like Florida Derby day at Gulfstream on April 1, Santa Anita Derby day on April 8 and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 20 – there are a pair of days where the tour will be running simultaneously.

This coming Saturday, Gulfstream will play host to the Holy Bull while Santa Anita has the Robert B. Lewis – both of them Kentucky Derby prep races.

And on March 4, Gulfstream has the Fountain of Youth, another major Derby prep, while San Anita has the Big Cap. Plans call for coordinated post times at those two tracks on those days to provide the best racing action every 20 minutes, as well as some unique betting options.

“We can never rest on our laurels,” Stronach said. “We have to keep moving forward. We have a great team that’s really committed.”

The main Pegasus race is one of the biggest-paying races in North America. Art Collector claimed about $1.8 million from a $3 million purse with his win on Saturday. In 2022, only the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf featured bigger prizes among U.S. races, and the $3 million Pegasus purse is equal to the one offered last year at the Kentucky Derby.

Regardless of what happens with the Santa Anita plan for future Pegasus events, Stronach insisted Gulfstream will continue having Pegasus days. There has even been talk about Gulfstream playing host to Breeders’ Cup races again, something that hasn’t happened since 1999.

“This is staying here in Miami,” Stronach said. “Pegasus has a home here in Miami. We can’t move Pegasus from Miami. We have great partners here and it’s more than just a day now. We have deep roots here in Miami.”