Tiz the Law continues dominant campaign with Travers Stakes win

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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.

Royal silks return as King Charles III’s horse finishes 2nd

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SALISBURY, England – The famous royal silks returned to British horse racing with the first runner under the ownership of King Charles III finishing a distant second at Salisbury.

Educator was the first horse to wear the purple, red and gold silks since the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8.

Her oldest son and heir, Charles, has taken on the royal stable and Educator was sent off as the 11-10 favorite under jockey Tom Marquand for the Radcliffe & Co Handicap.

Okeechobee won by 4 \ lengths in the four-horse race.

The queen’s last runner was Improvise, who was beaten narrowly at Epsom on the day the monarch died at her Balmoral estate in Scotland.

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!