Belmont sets pace for Triple Crown, with Tiz the Law favored

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It’s been 17 years since Jack Knowlton and his Sackatoga Stable pals rode yellow school buses to the Belmont Stakes. It was a rollicking party on wheels for the group that came to watch their colt Funny Cide try to sweep the Triple Crown.

It didn’t happen that day.

Now, the ownership group that buys just one or two New York-bred colts a year is back to try again with Tiz the Law. He’s the star of a 10-horse field for the Belmont on Saturday, perhaps the biggest event in U.S. sports since the coronavirus pandemic shut down competition in mid-March.

“I still wake up and kind of pinch myself and say it looks like lightning really has struck twice,” Knowlton said.

Tiz the Law is the early 6-5 favorite for the Belmont, which kicks off what Knowlton calls a “backwards Triple Crown.” Instead of completing the series of three races run over five weeks, the Belmont is getting things started for the first time. The Kentucky Derby follows on Sept. 5, with the Preakness finishing up on Oct. 3.

NBC is home to the 152nd Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 20, 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.

Tiz the Law is the only horse in the race with Grade 1 stakes victories. He’ll try to buck history as the first New York-bred in 138 years to win the $1 million race. His 82-year-old trainer, Barclay Tagg, is chasing a win that eluded him in 2003 after Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to lose his Triple Crown bid in the Belmont.

“Tiz The Law has been the best 3-year-old since January basically, and he remains that,” retired Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said. “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.”

This Belmont – rescheduled from June 6 – will be run at 1 1/8 miles, the first time since 1925 it won’t be its usual grueling 1 1/2 miles. The top four finishers earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points, including 150 to the winner.

“He’s a versatile horse. He can be there on the pace or sit off, so I can do whatever I want,” Tiz the Law’s jockey Manny Franco said. “He’s run here before and won and I think he likes the track, so that’s to our advantage.”

Rival trainer Mark Casse said, “If you beat him, you win.”

Casse saddles 6-1 shot Tap It to Win, trying to become the first trainer to win back-to-back in 24 years after taking last year’s Belmont with Sir Winston. Linda Rice oversees 15-1 shot Max Player. No woman has trained the winner of a Triple Crown race. Sole Volante is the early 9-2 second choice coming off a quick 10-day layoff. Dr Post is the 5-1 third choice in the wagering.

The date and distance aren’t the only things different about this Belmont. Adhering to dramatically new rules caused by COVID-19 means no owners or fans are allowed at the sprawling track that usually caps attendance at 90,000.

Knowlton hasn’t seen Tiz the Law race in person since Feb. 3 in Florida because of the pandemic. Undeterred, he and his group plan to watch on a restaurant patio in upstate Saratoga Springs.

“There is always a Sackatoga party in some way, shape or form,” Knowlton said.

There’s no Charlatan, Honor A. P., Maxfield or Nadal in the field because of injuries and sudden retirement. No Bob Baffert, the white-haired trainer of undefeated Charlatan and Nadal.

“In many ways I felt the Belmont was going to be the Kentucky Derby, the first time the best horses in training were going to be meeting each other,” Knowlton said. “Clearly, with Bob’s two horses and Maxfield out, there isn’t quite the star power we all expected.”

Without Baffert, fellow Hall of Famers Steve Asmussen, Casse, Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher will saddle half the field.

“It’s going to be a far different scene for sure,” Pletcher said. “It’s sad in some ways, but we’re grateful we’re getting an opportunity to run.”

NBC Sports is calling several audibles on its coverage. The network is using seven cameras instead of its usual 25, augmented by cameras from the New York Racing Association. Three jockeys will wear mics to enhance the racing sounds on a broadcast lacking crowd noise.

Larry Collmus will call the race from a platform in the third-floor grandstand, about 40 feet below his usual glass-enclosed perch.

The network has 50 people on-site rather than the 200 who worked last year, including Collmus and reporters Kenny Rice and Britney Eurton doing roaming interviews with boom mics from a social distance of 6 feet.

Host Mike Tirico and analyst Randy Moss will work from studios in Stamford, Connecticut. Bailey will check in from his Florida home, while Eddie Olczyk handicaps the race from his basement in Chicago.

With all the changes for horses and humans, Tiz the Law remains a calming presence.

“He seems to be the kind of horse that takes everything in stride,” Knowlton said.

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.