There are fleets of school buses that have been sitting idle for months now.
Add one more to the motor pool.
Faced with the prospect of not being allowed to attend the Belmont Stakes on Saturday because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sackatoga Stable will watch their star 3-year-old Tiz the Law on TV at Pennell’s Restaurant in Saratoga Springs.
Funny Cide took the ownership group on a wild, rollicking ride in 2003 that included a signature yellow school bus, first enlisted to get the partners back and forth from their hotel in Louisville to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby.
They kept those wheels rolling to the Preakness at Pimlico and the Belmont, where Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid was thwarted by Empire Maker. The fun-loving Sackatoga friends became media darlings and fan favorites in the process.
In the spirit of maintaining tradition, they hope to ride a yellow bus to Churchill again in September, but in the meantime, with spectators barred from almost all tracks in North America, the Sackatoga crew, including Pennell’s owner Bruce Cerone, will keep tabs on this Belmont Stakes from the comfort of the restaurant patio.
“There’s always a Sackatoga party in one way, shape or form,” Sackatoga operating manager Jack Knowlton said during a national teleconference on Monday. “He has a nice outside patio that is covered. We’ve already got 30 or 40 people that are signed up to be at Pennell’s and have a viewing party there.”
There had been speculation that a small number of owners might be allowed to watch their horses in person on Belmont Day, but the New York Racing Association said on Monday that that won’t be the case.
“To align with health and safety protocols required at all racetracks in New York State, owners will be not permitted to attend the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, June 20,” NYRA communications director Pat McKenna said. “NYRA engaged in productive conversations with the New York State Gaming Commission on this matter but determined that continued health and safety concerns do not allow for expanded access to the Belmont Park property.”
Like Funny Cide, Tiz the Law is trained by Barclay Tagg. The colt, purchased by Sackatoga for $110,000 at the 2018 Saratoga Preferred New York-bred Yearling Sale, won his career debut at Saratoga Race Course last August and is already a two-time Grade I winner, in the Champagne at Belmont last year and in his last start, the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 28.
Only essential personnel were allowed on the grounds for that one.
“It’s not our call,” Knowlton said. “It will be frustrating. I sat in the condo a mile away from Gulfstream when he won the Florida Derby.”
“It’s my understanding that there will be no spectators, no owners, which is unfortunate in a lot of ways, but with the current protocols in place, I think everyone’s health and safety are first and foremost,” trainer Todd Pletcher said during the teleconference. “As we sort of get further down the road, maybe things will loosen, as we see how this progresses.”
Pletcher will have two horses in the Belmont, Farmington Road and Dr Post.
Tiz the Law is the expected favorite for the Belmont, which was moved from June 6 to June 20 and shortened from a mile and a half to a mile and an eighth in a concession to the havoc the pandemic has wrought on the schedule.
The Kentucky Derby was moved from the first Saturday in May to Sept. 5, and the Preakness will be held on Oct. 3.
One of the motivations for Churchill Downs, which drew over 150,000 people for the Derby last year, to push the race into the fall was to have a better opportunity to let people through the doors.
Knowlton and the Sackatoga partners would like to be among them.
“The school bus will be reserved for Louisville,” he said. “The Triple Crown is backwards this year. We’re hoping — when Churchill made the announcement that it’s going to be the first Saturday in September instead of the first Saturday in May — that they’ll be able to have a sizable number of owners and a very sizable number of fans in Churchill.”