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.’’
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.