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. 

Breeders’ Cup spots on the line this weekend, top trainers hold keys to 2-year-old tests

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Sometimes, in assessing stakes races, it is best to look at the history of the race and see if there is a dominant factor in that history. This weekend’s racing features both the Champagne Stakes and the Miss Grillo Stakes, two Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup (coverage begins Saturday at 4 pm ET on NBC). For both races, you need to look no further than the “winning trainer” column, which provides some unavoidable facts:

  1. Since 2004, Todd Pletcher has won the Champagne Stakes a record-setting six times.
  2. In recent times, Chad Brown has asserted himself in this race, winning 3 of the last 6 runnings.
  3. In the 14 runnings of the Miss Grillo since 2008, Chad Brown has been the winning trainer 8 times.

All observations and handicapping of these two races must begin with these facts. Is there something that makes horses from these barns better than others? Not necessarily. But history tells us that these two barns have high-quality and expensive horses and they tend to get them to peak at this time of year. You can try to beat them at the betting windows, but be aware of the history that you are running into.

Further research brought up some interesting notes about these two races and their Breeders’ Cup divisions.

First, a look at the 2-year-old colt division. Since 2004 (when Todd Pletcher won the first of his 6 Champagne Stakes), three 2-year-olds have won the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award. They were War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010) and Shanghai Bobby (2012).  Pletcher trained Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito handled War Pass.

RELATED: Kentucky Derby modifies qualifying, elevates prep races

Looking at the 2-year-old turf fillies, the dominance of Chad Brown is even more striking. Since 2008, when Chad Brown captured his first Miss Grillo and the first running of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, four 2-year-old fillies have captured the Miss Grillo and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. They were Maram (2008), Lady Eli (2014), New Money Honey (2016) and Newspaperofrecord (2018). All four fillies were trained by Chad Brown.

A review of charts from the Champagne back to 2004 (the year of Todd Pletcher’s first winner in the race) reveals that he had 20 starters, with 6 wins, 3 seconds and 1 third. That means he has won 30% of the time and been in the money 50%.

A review of the charts from the Miss Grillo dating back to 2008 (Chad Brown’s first winner in the race) shows that he has had 23 starters, with 8 wins, 1 second and 4 thirds. That means he has won approximately 35% of the time and been in the money 56%.

RELATED: Olympiad cruises to Jockey Club Gold Cup victory

Storylines to Watch for 2022 Champagne Stakes

So, what does this mean for this year’s editions of these two “Win and You’re In” races for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup?

In the Champagne, it seems that the dominant trainers in the sport are putting forth the major contenders.

  • 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is likely to start Verifying, who was a solid winner at Saratoga as a big favorite in his only career start.
  • The sport’s all-time winningest North American trainer is Steve Asmussen, who is rapidly closing in on 10,000 career wins. Asmussen, who won this race in 2020 with Jackie’s Warrior, will send out Gulfport, a very impressive son of Uncle Mo. Gulfport won his first two races by an average winning margin of almost 10 lengths. Then, he had some real misfortune in his next two starts, finishing 2nd in both races at Saratoga. In the Saratoga Special, he had major traffic problems that led to losing several lengths at the top of the stretch. As the favorite in the Hopeful, he endured a wide trip on a sloppy surface to be 2nd best again. With a clean trip, he will be a major contender in the Champagne.
  • As previously stated, Chad Brown has won the Champagne in 3 of its last 6 runnings. He is likely to enter Blazing Sevens, who is a son of Good Magic, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. After a big win in the first race of his career at Saratoga, Blazing Sevens endured a wide trip on a sloppy track in the Hopeful Stakes, and he should improve here, especially on a fast track.
  • The horse who beat Gulfport in the Hopeful was Forte, trained by the 6-time winner of this race, Todd Pletcher. The stretchout to a one-turn mile in the Champagne would have seemed to be made to order for his closing kick. At entry time, Pletcher chose to not enter Forte in the Champagne Stakes, in all likelihood because he plans to enter the horse in the Breeders’ Futurity next Saturday at Keeneland. The Breeders’ Futurity is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and can be seen on CNBC.

RELATED: Taiba wins $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for Baffert

Storylines to Watch for 2022 Miss Grillo Stakes

Moving on to the Miss Grillo, Chad Brown is likely to enter Free Look, who was an impressive late-closing winner of a Maiden race in her second career start. In her first start, she was a victim of a slow pace, and the best she could do from the back of the pack was close to be 3rd. She seems to be a horse who is likely to improve with more racing. Free Look is a daughter of the leading sire Tapit.

Two others to watch in the Miss Grillo are Be Your Best and Pleasant Passage. Be Your Best is undefeated in two starts for trainer Horacio DePaz. Her last start was the P.G. Johnson Stakes, and she displayed the stalking style that has led to wins in both of her starts. Another with a license to improve is Pleasant Passage, from the barn of legendary trainer Shug McGaughey. In her only career start, she rallied up the rail and endured a stretch battle to get up for a narrow win. She has outstanding grass breeding, and the experience of that win should work in her favor in this race.

It is hard to predict outcomes with lightly-raced 2-year-olds. What we do know is that two horses will win their way into two Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. That’s the great thing about these “Win and You’re In” races… they are running for something other than purse money, and it often produces some outstanding outcomes.

Lookahead to 2022 Breeders’ Cup

These races lead up to two of the 14 championship races on November 4th and 5th. For those who have never watched an entire Breeders’ Cup, get ready for the rush of witnessing a world championship event every 35 minutes or so. It’s like the Olympics of our sport. Be ready to watch and wager, and you’re sure to come away with some great memories. If you pick some winners, you might come away with a nice profit, as well. The Breeders’ Cup…there’s nothing like it!

Pegasus on Jan. 28, Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Gulfstream Park announced the schedule for the 2022-23 Championship Meet, highlighted by the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 28.

Also on Pegasus day: The $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, as well as the $500,000 Pegasus World Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Gulfstream’s top Kentucky Derby prep race, the $1 million Florida Derby, will be run on April 1 as part of a card with 10 stakes races. Other top 3-year-old preps at Gulfstream in early 2023 include the $150,000 Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 1, the $250,000 Holy Bull on Feb. 4 and the $400,000 Fountain of Youth on March 4.

The Pegasus is returning for a seventh time. The format has changed several times in the race’s infancy; the purse structure for the Pegasus World Cup no longer requires owners to put up $1 million apiece for a spot in the starting gate for what was, at its inception, the world’s richest race with a purse that reached $16 million.

This much has remained constant: Winning the Pegasus changes a horse’s resume. No Pegasus winner has ever finished worse than sixth in the yearlong earnings among North American horses, and two past winners – Arrogate and Gun Runner – are two of the three highest-earning thoroughbreds in U.S. history.

Gulfstream’s Championship Meet runs from Dec. 26 through April 2, featuring 60 stakes races, 35 of them graded, and worth a combined $13.6 million.