By Nicholas Godfrey
“Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!”
USA: Even if those involved in Tiz The Law’s owners Sackatoga Stable haven’t read The Great Gatsby, they might have good reason to concur with the central character’s optimistic outlook.
Having lived the American Dream once with Funny Cide’s unlikely Triple Crown bid in 2003, the small-scale Saratoga-based syndicate can hardly believe their good fortune in 2020.
In one of the most remarkable racing stories to emerge in an extraordinary year, the seven-horse operation are back on the Kentucky Derby trail for a second time with the colt who is now the country’s leading three-year-old.
“What’s the old adage about lightning striking twice,” says Sackatoga’s managing partner Jack Knowlton, who became a familiar figure on the US racing scene as Funny Cide charged through the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.
“I wake up every day and ask myself, ‘Is this for real?’ You can’t believe a little stable like ours that typically buys one, maybe two, horses a year and don’t spend a lot of money, can be in this position. Never in the world did I believe I’d have another horse to at least start on the trail of the Triple Crown.”
Like Funny Cide, Tiz The Law is a New York-bred, a relatively cheaply bought son of Constitution – $110,000 is very much at the upper end of their budget – whose career is supervised by the syndicate’s longserving trainer, that deadpan octogenarian Barclay Tagg. (“I wanted to have a Belmont victory before I gave it up or died,” was the 82-year-old’s response when Tiz The Law claimed the New York Classic.)
‘We’ve won all three legs of the Triple Crown’
In that sense Tiz The Law has succeeded where his hugely popular predecessor came unstuck. Funny Cide missed out on the Triple Crown when he finished third behind Empire Maker in the Belmont, whereas Tiz The Law has already won the race, which was the first leg of the 2020 Triple Crown in this topsy-turvy coronavirus-plagued year.
“Now between those two horses we’ve won all three legs of the Triple Crown,” Knowlton says, almost aghast. “Our trainer is one of only four contemporary trainers who has won all three races alongside Wayne Lukas, Bob Baffert and Nick Zito!”
He seems incredulous, adding: “For us to be in the middle of this again, spending as little as we do and only racing New York-breds to compete against all the big-money owners in the world trying to win these races … well, it is pretty amazing.”
Hopefully the story isn’t over yet. Having already landed two G1 successes in the Florida Derby and Belmont, Tiz The Law is sure to start hot favourite for the Travers Stakes, the highlight of the prestigious summer meet at his home base Saratoga.
Even before that race, he is a short-priced market leader for the rearranged Kentucky Derby – on the first Saturday in September rather than the first Saturday in May – after which comes the Preakness four weeks later.
It is a Triple Crown like no other in a year like no other – and it might be a three-year-old campaign like no other. “He’s the only one that’s still alive in the Triple Crown chase this year so I just hope he stays healthy and sound and gets the opportunity to run in those races,” says Knowlton, who is 73.
There are those, however, who are carping that this year’s Triple Crown isn’t quite right, as Knowlton recognises. “I know some people are saying that if he did happen to win you’d have to have an asterisk because he didn’t run those races in order and he didn’t do it in a five-week period and he didn’t run the Belmont at a mile and a half,” he says.
‘The more distance he went, the more he won’
“I’ll be happy to have that argument if we ever reach the point where it’s relevant! But I will say that if anyone watched the Belmont and they can say he wasn’t going to win that race going further, then I wanna hear that argument. I can’t imagine that was true. The more distance he went, the more he won.”
First, though, comes the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on August 8, earlier than usual to fit in with the Kentucky Derby.
“It is important to us and he looks like a horse who’s prepared for his next battle,” says Knowlton. “It’s in our backyard and it’s the track he’s trained on as a two-year-old and where he broke his maiden.
“I’ve lived in Saratoga for 35 years and unfortunately Funny Cide got sick and couldn’t run in the Travers, which was my biggest disappointment with him other than not winning the Belmont.”
Ah yes, Funny Cide: what a wild ride that must have been for everyone concerned. The gelding was only the eighth horse ever purchased by Knowlton and his old high-school buddies from Sackets Harbor, on the eastern edge of Lake Ontario.
He was to take them to racing’s giddiest heights – a location his ten owners famously attained via an old yellow schoolbus.
“That was one of the things that really defined him and Sackatoga Stable,” Knowlton recalls. “The story behind that was that we needed a way to get from the hotel in downtown Louisville to the racetrack and one of my partners talked to the hotel and they said they could get us a bus for $3,600.”
That sounded like a lot of money, so instead they got the schoolbus for $1,300. “By the time we got to the Preakness we had two schoolbuses and when we got to the Belmont to try to win the Triple Crown, we had four.”
In breeding terms, New York State is quite a way far removed from the blood-blooded environs of Kentucky, and Funny Cide was the first New York-bred ever to win the Kentucky Derby; he was also the first gelding to win since 1929.
“So it was a surprise,” says Knowlton. “He was a 12-1 longshot and the field included two horses, Empire Maker and Peace Rules, who had already beaten him. We thought we had one of the best four horses in the race but he still had to go and prove it and fortunately he did, and we were ecstatic beyond belief.”
‘No joy in Mudville’
By the time the Belmont came around, New York had gone Funny Cide crazy. The public latched on to his underdog status, and the horse’s name was plastered across billboards, while big yellow checker cabs carried messages of support on their rooftop LED displays.
More than 100,000 people braved unseasonably grisly conditions at a cold and wet Belmont but there was to be ‘No joy in Mudville’, as Newsday headlined the race on the front page of the Sunday edition; ‘Triple Drown’ said the New York Post. Empire Maker got his revenge.
“I tell everybody I’ll go to my grave wondering what would have happened if we didn’t get five inches of rain that day,” says Knowlton. “He didn’t like that track, he was rank – but he also got beaten by a horse who lots of people thought would be a Triple Crown horse that year.
“We had a great run and with him being a gelding, we managed to have him around for another five years. We had a lot of success and a lot of fun – and he was a horse who cost $75,000 who ended up winning $3.5 million!”
‘Known to be a little bit grumpy’
Now 20, Funny Cide enjoyed life as a stable pony before his retirement to the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park where he is “known to be a little bit grumpy”. Evidently carrots are his favourite treat and he loves naps.
After Funny Cide exited the stage, Sackatoga Stable became more businesslike with a “second iteration” founded alongside marketing director Ed Mitzer at the helm.
A couple of the Funny Cide syndicate died and others dropped out while more have come aboard. A total of 35 are now involved in the Tiz The Law syndicate, with Knowlton and Lew Titterton still there from the Funny Cide days.
“Through the years people have joined us and become good friends and there has been a lot of continuity over the years. I was back in Sackets Harbor a couple of weeks ago and they still follow what’s going on and they’re happy for us.
“It used to be just a sideline and I still have my healthcare consultancy business,” he goes on. “They’re both run out of the same office in Saratoga. But I have an administrative assistant and she spends a lot more time doing horse stuff than she does on my healthcare business!”
‘We’ve missed two G1 wins’
For such an enthusiastic bunch of owners, not being present for Tiz The Law’s triumphs behind-closed-doors is an obvious disappointment, though they did the best they could for the Belmont by gathering in Saratoga Springs on the patio at Pennell’s restaurant, owned by Sackatoga investor Bruce Cerone.
“We’ve missed two G1 wins,” says Knowlton. “I have a condominium in Florida one mile from Gulfstream Park and watched the Florida Derby on TV!
“But at least at this point it does look as if eight of us will be allowed to watch the Travers live, and now the plan is to allow limited numbers of fans for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, though unfortunately there’s been a resurgence of the virus in parts of the country.”
Either way, Knowlton is grateful for this second circuit of the Triple Crown carousel. “Given the circumstances we have with the virus, to have an opportunity to have something with such joy in your life really means a lot,” he says.
“People are already calling him a New York thoroughbred hero because he was the first New York-bred in 138 years to win the Belmont Stakes,” he adds. “We’re proud of that and hope we can keep the ride going.”
And, assuming the Sackatoga team can get back to the track, what about the schoolbus?
“The schoolbus will come out of storage in Louisville if we get back to the Derby with Tiz The Law after he runs in the Travers,” says Knowlton. ”That’s a Derby deal!”
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