A Belmont Stakes that includes a New York-bred horse carrying the maroon-and-silver diamond silks of Sackatoga Stable again should be ripe for deja vu.
And Barclay Tagg trains the horse for the Saratoga Springs-based ownership group, and his assistant, Robin Smullen, gets in the saddle when the horse is doing routine workouts outside of more rigorous breezes.
We’ve seen all of this before. Just like Funny Cide.
But not. In many ways, those are the only echoes to 2003, when the headstrong “gutsy gelding” won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Tiz the Law carries the silks of the Saratoga Springs-based ownership group now, and he’s as different from Funny Cide as this Triple Crown season will be from the 2003 one, and every other one.
The COVID-19 pandemic has flipped the script on the Triple Crown, which will begin on Saturday with the 152nd Belmont Stakes (scheduled post 5:42 p.m.), continue on Sept. 5 with the Kentucky Derby and finish with what is usually the second leg, the Preakness, on Oct. 3.
Funny Cide won the Derby and Preakness, then lost to Empire Maker in the Belmont in the five-week span that has been the norm for decades. Riding him was like a wrestling match, but Tiz the Law brings a more easy-going, calm demeanor — and a star-in-the-making resume — to the Belmont, which has been scaled back from a mile and half to a mile and an eighth after the pandemic wreaked havoc on the racing schedule.
No spectators will be allowed at Belmont Park, including the owners, who count 10 Capital Region partners among its ranks of 35 with a share in Tiz the Law. One of them is Bruce Cerone, who owns Pennell’s restaurant in Saratoga Springs, so dozens of Sackatoga partners and supporters will be there for a viewing party. There will be at least one touch of deja vu: the Sackatoga people have seen Pennell’s chicken parm at least a few times.
“It is disappointing, but whatta ya gonna do?” Sackatoga managing partner Jack Knowlton said.
Win the Belmont, for starters, which most observers expect Tiz the Law to do. He’s 6-5 on the morning line against nine rivals, none of whom has won at a level higher than Grade III. The Grade I scoreboard reads: Tiz the Law 2, everybody else 0.
No New York-bred has won the Belmont since Forester in 1882.
Tiz the Law has won at Belmont already, though, in the Grade I Champagne as a 2-year-old in October. His other Grade I is the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on March 28, to go along with the Grade III Holy Bull at Gulfstream in February. Tiz the Law and jockey Manny Franco have gradually learned each other, and it appears that, as the race distance stretches out, Tiz the Law should be equipped to handle that.
“I never, never dreamed … I figured once in a lifetime for an outfit like ours, that typically buys one horse, maybe two horses a year, always New York-bred, for never as much as $200,000,” Knowlton said. “So to have it happen again, I wake up and kind of pinch myself and say, ‘You know what? It looks like lightning really has struck twice.'”
“It means a lot,” Tagg said during the post-position draw on Wednesday. “You don’t get top contenders all the time.
“He’s a nice horse. Hopefully, he’s as good we think. You work every day seven days a week, you just hope nothing happens and nothing goes wrong. But so far, so good. We’re pleased with the way he’s been doing and we’re ready for the race.”
“He makes my work a lot easier,” Franco told the New York Racing Association, after a recent workout on the Belmont main track. “He’s a versatile horse. He can be there on the pace or sit off, so I can do whatever I want. He’s run here before and won, and I think he likes the track. So that’s to our advantage.”
The word “easier” rarely came up when Funny Cide was making his run in 2003.
Tiz the Law, a bay colt with a prominent white blaze on his nose that covers most of his forehead, doesn’t look anything like his predecessor, a tough chestnut gelding with virtually no markings.
And their respective demeanors and running styles are different, too.
“Funny Cide was kind of all speed, very high-strung, very, very difficult to manage,” Knowlton said. “Robin used to have a terrible time just trying to handle him in the morning. She was the only one in the barn that would be able to get on him to get him to do what was needed to be ready for races.
“With Tiz, he’s a different horse altogether. He’s much lower key, very easy to handle, does anything you want him to do. He’s so relaxed. I mean, you may have seen some of the pictures that he is, you know, sleeping and he was just very laid back and he was that way in his training. Even in the races, what we’ve seen Manny be able to do with him when he needed to take action, kind of put them where we wanted to put them, stop them, start them, and that’s a great characteristic.”
The other graded stakes winners in the field are Sole Volante, Max Player, Modernist and Fore Left, a 30-1 late addition to the Belmont by trainer Doug O’Neill off a win in the Grade III UAE 2000 Guineas in Dubai way back on Feb. 6.
Sole Volante won the Grade III Sam Davis at Tampa Bay Downs in February before a second to King Guillermo in the Tampa Bay Derby, and trainer Patrick Biancone snuck in a quick come-backer with an allowance win at Gulfstream on June 10.
“No question, Tiz the Law is the horse to beat, but he totally [deserves] this opportunity,” Andie Biancone, her father’s assistant, said at the draw. “He just came out of that allowance race so well, and we did an open gallop with him on Monday. We really waited for him to do the talking. His behavior is great, and he came out of it so fresh and so happy and so well, we couldn’t not go to this race.”
Max Player will be coming off the longest layoff of all.
He last ran on Feb. 1, when he won the Grade III Withers at Aqueduct.
Modernist won the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds before a third to Wells Bayou in the Louisiana Derby on March 21.
One horse who is expected to be part of the controlling speed early in the one-turn Belmont is Tap It to Win, who will break from the rail after winning an allowance at a mile and a sixteenth at Belmont on June 4 in which he led at every call.
“I’m glad it’s a mile and an eighth, because if it was a mile and a half, you’d see Tap It to Win running in the [seven-furlong] Woody Stevens,” trainer Mark Casse said. “So I think the key to Tap It to Win is the one turn, in his ability to get himself together, down the backside.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the Belmont in 2017 with Tapwrit, 2013 with Palace Malice and 2007 with the filly Rags to Riches, has two entries, Dr Post and the late-running Farmington Road.
Dr Post is coming off a nice effort in the ungraded Unbridled Stakes at Gulfstream on April 25.
“I think there’s a lot of talent there,” Pletcher said. “I was very impressed by his maiden win [March 29]. With the amount of adversity he overcame in the Unbridled, it seems like he’s made a lot of progress in a short period of time. He’s a big, strong horse that seems to be improving. This is a big jump up in class and he’s a little light on seasoning, but he seems to have the talent.
“Before Saratoga last year, we felt like he was one of our more promising 2-year-olds. He had a bit of a setback after his maiden race, but he’s one we’ve always seen a lot of potential from.”
Trainer Steve Asmussen, who won his first Belmont in 2016, with Creator, also has two in on Saturday, Pneumatic and 50-1 Jungle Runner, ridden by Reylu Gutierrez, a Rochester native who was more likely to be riding at Finger Lakes than in the Belmont this time last year.
“I’m kind of speechless,” Gutierrez told the New York Racing Association. “I’ve been preparing for this my whole life. Last year, I rode in the New York Derby up in Finger Lakes, and that’s the biggest race at Finger Lakes. I lost that race, it was a heartbreaker, since a lot of people from home were cheering me on and came to see me.
“But the Belmont is the biggest race in New York, so I’m very excited. I haven’t had a lot of these moments, but I’ll be prepared.”