The way Jack Knowlton sees it, this would be a good problem to have.
He’s got 35 ownership partners in star 3-year-old colt Tiz the Law, and facing the possibility that the New York Racing Association might be allowed to issue a limited number of credentials for owners to watch their horses run at Saratoga Race Course, Knowlton would have to devise a selection process for divvying up a handful of passes. On Travers Day, no less.
NYRA and the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association conducted one of their semi-regular Zoom conferences on Wednesday in which a proposal was finalized asking New York state officials to let some owners in. They’ve asked for a decision by Friday.
If NYRA gets the green light on what could be a baby step toward eventually allowing some fans in, too, Knowlton will have some decisions of his own to make when Tiz the Law runs in the Travers on Aug. 8.
“They’ll give out six [passes] or whatever, and you pick who it is. And won’t that be fun for me,” Sackatoga Stable’s managing partner said with dry humor on Wednesday afternoon.
“One thing I can tell you is I will always be one of them. We’ll figure it out.”
With 35 partners, 10 of whom are full-time residents of the Capital Region, Saratoga Springs-based Sackatoga would love to figure that out, considering current New York state policy regarding large public gatherings.
As of now, no spectators, including the owners who shell out millions of dollars to buy, maintain and race thoroughbred racehorses, will be allowed through the doors when the 152nd Saratoga meet opens in two weeks, on Thursday, July 16.
While NYRA counts itself fortunate to be permitted to race again, even spectator-free, after having been shut down except for training in mid-March by the COVID-19 pandemic, the prospect of an empty Saratoga meet, which drew over 1 million in paid admission last year, is a grim one.
Letting some owners in would at least be an encouraging sign for those who have been wondering for months whether anyone would be let in. Some tracks around the U.S. have been given permission this week to open the doors to limited capacity — Ellis Park in Kentucky (Thursday) and Monmouth Park in New Jersey (Friday) among them — but New York tracks are still on lockdown.
“Hopefully, there will be some word on Friday,” said Knowlton, who was in on the Wednesday conference call. “It sounded like whatever they start with, if it goes well … I use the analogy of the governor turning the spigot. Hopefully, he’ll turn it to something to start the meet, and if things go well and no problems, then they could make another little turn and maybe even a third little turn. That’s kind of what I got out of it.”
“The idea is to seek authorization to allow a limited number of owners with access, first and foremost, to see their horse race in the afternoon, and then potentially with limited access to the barn area in the morning to visit their trainers and spend time with their horses,” NYRA director of communications Pat McKenna said.
“The priority is health and safety, and we recognize that. It needs to be done correctly, rather than quickly. As we’ve seen in 29 or 30 states across the country, the priority needs to be to get it right in a way that prioritizes health and safety above all else, and the timing will flow from there.”
Along with the Ellis Park and Monmouth news last week, Churchill Downs has been granted permission to let some fans in for the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5.
Keeneland, in Lexington, Kentucky, was given permission by Gov. Andy Beshear to allow some owners in when it holds an abbreviated, rescheduled meet July 8-12.
Only owners with horses running on any given day’s card will be given passes, with six for owners of a horse in a stakes race and four for horses on the rest of the card.
NYRA’s proposal is similar to that, Knowlton said.
“Anything that opens it up is positive in my mind, but I thought it was pretty restrictive,” he said.
A fixture at the Spa, Knowlton hasn’t missed many live racing days at Saratoga since 2003, when Sackatoga Stable made a run at the Triple Crown with Funny Cide.
If NYRA’s proposal is approved, Knowlton would still miss the bulk of this year’s meet, since Sackatoga only has a few horses that potentially would run at Saratoga.
As they did when Tiz the Law won the Belmont Stakes at empty Belmont Park on June 20 to claim the first leg of this year’s substantially revised Triple Crown series, a large group of Sackatoga people likely will be watching Tiz the Law’s Travers at Pennell’s restaurant in Saratoga Springs, owned by Sackatoga partner Bruce Cerone.
With no fans allowed at Gulfstream Park when Tiz the Law won the Florida Derby on March 28, Knowlton watched on TV at his condo a mile from the track.
“We accepted it and had a great day [on Belmont Day],” he said. “It was so much better than watching the Florida Derby in my condo with three other people. That was not at all fun. This way, we had at least half our partners there and spouses, we had the camaraderie, we got to celebrate together and everybody that was there ended up showing up on the NBC telecast, which was kind of neat. It was way, way, better than what happened in Florida.”
“First allowing owners, could that be a path for fans?” McKenna said. “I think the responsible way to approach this is piece by piece. And we feel incredibly fortunate to be able to open the meet on July 16.
“Seeing the news locally, with the cancellation of the minor league season for the first time since 1901, cancellation of the Tri-City ValleyCats season just yesterday, think about where we all were just a few months ago, six weeks ago. So we feel fortunate to be able to open the meet.
“We feel fortunate that we’ll be in a position to adapt quickly should conditions warrant and should we continue to head in the right direction under the leadership of Gov. Cuomo.”
TIZ THE LAW UPDATE
Also on Wednesday, Tiz the Law got back to the track for his first timed workout since his commanding victory in the Belmont, covering four furlongs in 50.06 on the Belmont Park main track for trainer Barclay Tagg, who also trained Funny Cide.
Knowlton said the top-ranked 3-year-old male in North America probably would ship to Saratoga three or four days before opening day.
“It was just an easy maintenance work to get him out of the stall and stretch his legs a little bit,” Knowlton said. “Obviously, not a serious work. We’ve got a long time for the race. Barclay has a pattern, and he’s stuck with it. Typically, 10 days after a race, they’re going to get a little work in.”
Pool 5 for the Kentucky Derby Futures Wager closed on Sunday with Tiz the Law the clear favorite at 2-1, with Honor A.P. at 6-1.
“That’s a little daunting,” Knowlton said with a chuckle. “After being under the radar with Funny Cide and him paying 27 and change [as a 12-1 long shot in the Derby], this guy has been on the front of the radar, really since he won the Champagne.
“Little bump in the road there in Kentucky, but that was much more the trip than the track, that’s what [jockey] Manny [Franco] said after the race. The horse didn’t mind the track, he just got stuck in there and I think the jockeys did a number on Manny that day.”
The “bump in the road” was Tiz the Law’s only career defeat from six starts, a third in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill to close his 2-year-old season in November.
As a 3-year-old, he’s won the Holy Bull and Florida Derby at Gulfstream and the Belmont.
In the COVID-19-jumbled stakes schedule this year, the Travers will actually offer qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby. Tagg said after Tiz the Law’s Belmont victory that they want to hit both of those races as well as the Oct. 3 Preakness.
“We’ve all been hoping he could continue to run the kind of race he’s run in these last three [in the Derby],” Knowlton said. “The thing that’s changed is he’s become a tremendous gate horse. He’s out in front breaking out of the gate, then Manny can do what he wants to do, get him where he wants him, get him in the 2 or 3 path.
“What’s going to be interesting to see is who’s going to show up for the Travers. I would not think that you’d have too many [Travers] people running in the [July 18] Haskell. I think they would want to win the Haskell and use that as the springboard to the Derby.
“In my mind, we’ve just got to keep Tiz healthy and happy, and if we can do that, whoever shows up shows up, and they will be the underdog.”