SARATOGA SPRINGS, New York – Forty-nine days had passed since Tiz the Law won the Belmont Stakes, the first major U.S. sporting event contested after the pandemic struck. That day in late June had seemed surreal to the point of dystopian – a traditional contest changed in structure and shifted from its customary place on the sports calendar, a hulking grandstand left empty and noiseless, a palpable sense of uncertainty hanging in the air. Late in the afternoon, Tiz the Law rolled past the Belmont finish line, a comfortable winner of the first leg of a pretzeled Triple Crown that won’t conclude until early October. The race happened, but sports and life were far from normal.
Saturday came the 151st running of the Travers at Saratoga Race Course, an ancient, leafy cathedral of American racing with a tradition that dates to more than a year before the end of the Civil War and six years before Princeton and Rutgers played the first college football game. It has long been called the Midsummer Derby, but now, who knows? The seasons have become hopelessly blurred, days melting into each other. The real Derby, the one in Kentucky, is four weeks from now, on Sept. 5, a Late Summer Derby.
But in those 49 days, much in the sports world has changed. Odd scenes of sporting events contested in silent bubbles (or near bubbles) have become commonplace: the NBA in Orlando, the NHL in Edmonton and Toronto, golf everywhere. The pervasive strangeness that was so discomforting on Belmont Day has been swiftly baked into America’s consumption of sports in a pandemic. What this says about our culture is likely to be left to historians.
Yet, the broader world in which sports exist also remains stubbornly and tragically unchanged. On June 20, the day of the Belmont Stakes, 692 Americans were reported to have died of Covid-19, the illness that results from the novel coronavirus. Yesterday, 1,088 Americans were reported to have died from that disease. In those 49 days, the death toll in this country has risen from approximately 120,000 to nearly 160,000, depending on which count is used. Major college football continues to wrestle with the moral, ethical and medical barriers to conducting a season; the NFL is working endlessly to play outside a bubble, which has proven troublesome for Major League Baseball.
The Travers took place in a facility that awakens to a very special kind of life every July and August, but which was closed to spectators (although, a bit uncomfortably, not entirely closed; keep reading). I am writing this story at a dinner table converted to a press workspace in an open air restaurant called the Turf Terrace on the third floor of Saratoga’s clubhouse. People with names like Vanderbilt and Whitney have sat here on Travers Day. But not on this Travers Day.
Another race happened, but sports and life are still far from normal.
Yet in all of this, there lives a remarkable racehorse, oblivious to the historic swirl of cultural uncertainty that buffets those around him and those who watch. In the long shadows of late summer, Tiz the Law won the Travers by 5 ½ lengths, a margin that doesn’t begin to measure the ease with which he captured one of the most treasured prizes in American racing. It was his first race at the classic distance of 1 ¼ miles (the Belmont had been shortened from its customary 1 ½ miles to a one-turn 1 1/8 miles), and his dominance was stunning. “He gave me chills,’’ said winning jockey Manny Franco, who slowed Tiz the Law to a canter in the final 1/16 of a mile. Through the haze of this uneven, uncertain Triple Crown season, he is the kind of horse who takes your breath away and captivates a sport.
Tiz the Law now becomes the almost certain, short-priced favorite for the rescheduled Kentucky Derby, four weeks away at Churchill Downs. (The second choice is likely to come from among the West Coast trio of Authentic and Thousand Words, both trained by Bob Baffert; and Honor A.P., trained by John Shirreffs, who trained 2005 Derby winner Giacomo and the great mare Zenyatta). Tiz the Law also becomes the rare Derby contender for whom the distance of 10 furlongs is not only not a question mark, but after Saturday, a strength.
A victory at Churchill Downs would put Tiz the Law in position to become racing’s 14th – and most unconventional – Triple Crown winner, at the Preakness on Oct. 3 at Pimlico. There is likely to be an asterisk next to any such victory because of the elongated schedule, but Tiz the Law could be the type of horse who outruns punctuation. (And there are ways in which a 15-week Triple Crown marathon is as challenging as the usual five-week sprint).
His victory also furthers the unlikely second chapter of Sackatoga Stable, the small collective that owned 2003 Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide, the first New York-bred to win the Derby. Funny Cide went on to win the Preakness before falling short of the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, yet captivating the sport in the process. Funny Cide’s success was a lottery ticket cashed by Everyman. And now Sackatoga is back. “Back then it was Funny Cide mania,’’ said Sackatoga managing partner Jack Knowlton. “It’s taken a little time for Tiz to get to that point. But I really believe after this race, he’s going to be adopted, not only by Saratoga, but by New York and hopefully the country.’’ (Tiz the Law was purchased for $110,000 and has 35 owners, including Knowlton.).
It is not just the Triple Crown itself that has been altered by the pandemic. The 11 weeks between the Belmont and Derby necessitated that Tiz the Law find another race, a Derby prep, as it were, after having already won the first leg of that series. Sackatoga Stable’s home is Saratoga; its name is a melting of Knowlton’s hometown of Sacketts Harbor, New York, and Saratoga Springs. Likewise, Barclay Tagg, Tiz the Law’s (and Funny Cide’s) 82-year-old trainer, is based in New York. “I’ve always wanted to win the Travers,’’ said Tagg. “It’s been in my head for a long time.’’ The Travers was the logical spot.
But Saratoga is a place where great horses lose. Graveyard of Favorites is the hoary old cliché, but it’s true that Secretariat lost to Onion here in the 1973 Whitney and that American Pharoah lost to Keen Ice in the 2015 Travers. As Knowlton sat at a picnic table adjacent to the saddling paddock 30 minutes before post time, he said, “I hope they’ve closed the gate to the graveyard of favorites today.’’
Not to worry. Tiz the Law was made the 1-2 betting favorite, and the most dangerous challenger seemed to be Uncle Chuck, a late-blooming Baffert entry who had started just twice before the Travers; he went off at the 3-1 choice. After all, Baffert won the 2018 Triple Crown with Justify, who had raced just three times before the Kentucky Derby. As is the style with Baffert horses, Uncle Chuck was hustled to the lead from the No. 3 post position under jockey Luis Saez. Tiz the Law broke cleanly from the No. 6 hole, but was hung three wide on the first turn. “I was concerned when I saw that,’’ said Tagg. “You don’t like to be out there. But I had a lot of confidence in my horse.’’
Down the backstretch, Tiz the Law carried Franco to Uncle Chuck’s side, doing it on his own, while Saez was getting after Uncle Chuck. Franco seemed to gear down Tiz the Law, a start-stop-start again maneuver that only the best horses can deliver. “When I came to Uncle Chuck at the half-mile pole,’’ said Franco, “I was trying to wait more, because I knew I had him. [Saez] was riding hard and trying to keep up.’’
Baffert said, “When Tiz the Law came up to us, I knew we were in big trouble.’’ Saez concurred: “I tried to get away from me, but he was just right there.’’
Tiz and Franco glided to the front on the turn, clear at the head of the stretch. The last challenge came from Caracaro and jockey Javier Castellano, who thought he was moving on Tiz the Law leaving the quarter pole for the run to the wire. “My horse was getting closer and closer,’’ said Castellano. “Then just when I thought I might catch him, Tiz the Law just disappeared.’’
On the track apron, Knowlton was gathered with many of his co-owners, all of them shouting Tiz the Law down the lane, attired in their garnet-colored shirts, wearing garnet-colored masks, for which Knowlton said he’s received queries from as far away as California. It should be noted that the New York Racing Association has loosened rules ever so slightly since the Belmont; at Saratoga, horse owners are permitted inside the track on days when their horse is running. There were a few hundred people gathered near the finish line Saturday, possibly not all of them horse owners (or media). Some might say there were too many and perhaps too closely bunched. It was a small slice of the same dance Americans do every day, some cautiously and some less so. This much is certain: They witnessed excellence.
But nothing is simple in 2020. It is both exhilarating to watch a horse with Tiz the Law’s gifts and dispiriting that he’s running into the teeth of an ongoing and historic societal struggle that can’t help but dim the spotlight on his work. “I wish there had been 50,000-plus people here to see this live,’’ said Knowlton. (Tagg, ever taciturn, said, “The purse is the same.’’ That’s $1,000,000, to precise).
There is a larger truth in all of this: Tiz the Law does not spend his days debating the efficacy of wearing masks or drinking in crowded bars. He does not point fingers at one political party or the others. He does not mourn the loss of friends to the virus. He gives the gifts of speed and beauty. He does what great racehorses do: He runs for all of us.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.