On a day with no fans at Belmont, Tiz the Law wins for Everyman

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ELMONT, New York – Here ended an afternoon of dizzying recalibrations and sensory confusion, under a stubborn high sun on the longest day of the longest year, adjacent to a city healing its wounds from a terrible spring, in a nation still riven by uncertainty, and worse. At 14 minutes before six on Saturday, a powerful three-year-old colt named Tiz the Law rushed past the finish line to win the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes, and commence a 2020 Triple Crown series that bears little resemblance to at least a half-century’s worth of predecessors, either in style or in substance.

It was an event witnessed in dystopian near-silence by so few living souls that as the horses reached the final furlong, in a place where five years earlier the hulking Belmont grandstand shook with joy when American Pharoah ended racing’s 37-year Triple Crown drought, the audible sounds in the air were whips smacking against horseflesh, equine athletes snorting in anaerobic distress, and small birds chirping from their nests in the rafters of the empty building. “You come out of the tunnel on your horse and there’s nobody there,’’ said winning jockey Manny Franco. “But this is the world we are living in.’’ It was the racing equivalent of basketball sneakers squeaking on a wooden floor in an empty gym, so still that you could hear Franco unleash a primal, celebratory shriek, just a few jumps past the finish line.

Yet in the quiet, there was a moment, suspended somewhere between hope and hopelessness. And that, too, is the world we are living in.
Some restraint is in order. The Belmont was the first major sporting event contested on U.S. soil since the pandemic struck in March. That is a significant milepost. But no one was cured of COVID-19 by this moment. A nation was not healed. Racial and political tensions did not dissolve. But it was a halting step forward into the unknown, which remains the unknown. And the line of racing history was sustained, if awkwardly.

After the postponement of the May 2 Kentucky Derby and the May 16 Preakness, the June 6 Belmont was postponed two weeks and became the first leg of the Triple Crown, followed in 11 weeks by the Derby on Sept. 5 and the Preakness on Oct 3. It is the first re-ordering of the Triple Crown in nearly a century, but it remains a Triple Crown, if not the Triple Crown. There’s more: The Belmont was run at 1 1/8 miles, around one turn from a chute deep on Belmont’s backstretch, instead of the withering 1 ½ miles that has been customary for 94 years. It is all entirely different.

So there will be an asterisk, but there is currently an asterisk on Everyday Life In America. Other sports will struggle to do as well at preserving the centerpiece series of their seasons. It was a surreal day at Belmont Park. There was no natural energy – it had the feel of a winter Thursday at lonely Aqueduct — and no Triple Crown on the line. Where Secretariat had once run like a tremendous machine, a veil of surreality hung over the grounds. But the race went off and a winner was crowned. “Racing needs fans, we need that energy,’’ said Steve Asmussen, a Hall of Fame trainer who finished fourth and 10th in the Belmont with Pneumatic and Jungle Runner. “But at least it happened. And that’s something. That’s important.’’

Belmont Park with no fans
Five years ago the hulking Belmont grandstand shook with joy when American Pharoah ended racing’s 37-year Triple Crown drought, but this year, it was quiet. (Photo: Tim Layden, NBC Sports)

And this: Racing could do much worse than Tiz the Law to carry it forward into the uncertainty of the summer and fall. He has raced six times in his short career, and won five, beginning with a maiden (winless) race victory last August in Saratoga and including wins in the Holy Bull in February and the Florida Derby in late March, traditional Kentucky Derby prep races. It is distinctly possible that Tiz the Law would have been the Derby favorite, had the race been contested on the first Saturday in May, and today the roster of three-year-olds has been thinned considerably by injury and retirement.

Better yet, Tiz the Law is the second Classic winner from Sackatoga Stable, the Everyman ownership team that raced Funny Cide 17 years ago and captivated the country with unlikely wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before finishing third in a rain-soaked Belmont. Jack Knowlton, 73, is Sackatoga’s managing partner. He started his stable in the late 1990s by convincing five high school buddies from their tiny hometown of Sacketts Harbor, New York, to throw in $5,000 each and buy a horse. At the time, one of them said, “We might as well put that money in a tin can and bury it in the backyard.’’

That initial investment led, four years later to Funny Cide, a cantankerous gelding purchased for $75,000. Knowlton added four more partners to bring the ownership team to a total of 10. They rode to the Kentucky Derby in a yellow school bus, while other owners flew in on private jets and arrived in limousines. They became a phenomenon that carried all the way to a defeat right here at Belmont, ending one of the unlikeliest Triple Crown bids in history. During a late May day-long shoot for an NBC Sports feature that appeared in Saturday’s telecast, Knowlton sat with me – at a distance, wearing masks – flipping through the pages of a thick scrapbook that he and his wife, Dorothy, put together in 2003. It is full of letters and cards from fans of Funny Cide. Few small-time owners experience such a ride. Almost none experience two.

Knowlton kept his stable together, with modest New York-bred horses. Last year he bought Tiz the Law for $110,000, modest by the standards of the billionaires and Sheikhs who play this game, but an expensive play for Sackatoga. This time Knolwton has not just nine partners, but 34. Tiz the Law has earned more than $1.5 million. “Everybody has gotten their initial ($7,500) investment back,’’ says Knowlton. Like Funny Cide, Tiz the Law is a a New York-bred, but not a gelding, which means he will have stallion value. Like Funny Cide, he is trained by 82-year-old former steeplechase rider Barclay Tagg, one of only two trainers who responded to Knowlton’s queries more than 20 years ago.

Tagg’s work with Tiz the Law in advance of the misplaced Belmont was remarkable. Tagg had trained Tiz the Law with an eye toward the Kentucky Derby, which would have come an ideal five weeks after his win in the Florida Derby. He kept patiently training Tiz the Law for week after week, trying to keep him on the peak he had reached in Florida, never too fast, never too slow, and masterful.

In the Belmont, Tiz the Law went off as the 4-5 favorite and was dominant. Down the long backstretch, Tiz the Law sat in third place behind Tap It to Win, the 5-1 second choice in the field; and 25-1 longshot Fore Left. Entering the (only) turn in the race, Franco gave Tiz the Law his head and Tiz the Law eased toward the front. When he changed leads at the head of the stretch, he exploded. “I knew I had a lot of horse,’’ said Franco. “He just did it on his own.’’ The final margin was 3 ¾ lengths, but could have been much more.

Tagg, a taciturn man in the best of times, said, “I felt very confident.’’ A jarring juxtaposition hung in the air for those old enough to have witnessed Funny Cide’s Belmont defeat. A Belmont record crowd of more than 120,000 witnessed that loss; Tiz the Law’s was seen by dozens. Tagg said, “That loss was not a very good feeling. There were 120,000 people, but that’s 120,000 to boo you.’’ As for the empty, Tagg said, “I can’t complain. I thought the quietude was pretty nice.’’ And that is another way to look at it.

Knowlton, whose stable is named for his native town and his adopted hometown of Saratoga Springs, and his many partners and family members watched the race together at a restaurant near Saratoga Race Track. It was mildly bittersweet; Knowlton watched the Florida Derby win from a hotel near Gulfstream Park and had hoped that a small number of owners would be allowed into Belmont. None were permitted. It has not always been easy for Knowlton and Sackatoga; two of his Funny Cide partners – Gus Williams and Dave Mahan – have died since 2003, and Jack’s daughter, Wendy, has battled drug addiction. Jack and his wife, Dorothy, have helped raise Wendy’s three children. The oldest, 17-year-old Sophia Cook, graduated from high school with high honors and will begin college in the fall. And Wendy is currently clean.

Now the calendar turns. Tagg said that Tiz the Law will run in the Aug. 8 Travers at Saratoga and then go onto Louisville. The Derby is still on, and no decision has been announced regarding spectators. This is the daily conundrum of American sports; every day there is a new plan for restarting the games, and every day, a new swath of positive COVID-19 cases, over which the public argues like amateur epidemiologists. It all remains like murky and worrisome. There will or will not be a Kentucky Derby and Preakness. There will or will not be spectators at those events. The sport goes back to waiting and hoping, like all the other sports.

But for a day, in a famous place left strangely empty, there was a fast horse bestowing upon us that rarest of gifts in these times: A sure thing.

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.

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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%.

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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.

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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.