SARATOGA SPRINGS — As “hordes” go, it was pretty meager.
The collection of humanity around Barclay Tagg’s barn on the Saratoga Race Course backstretch Saturday morning consisted of two reporters, one New York Racing Association media worker, four or five photographers and a half dozen Sackatoga Stable owners, including operating manager Jack Knowlton.
There is more attention on Belmont Stakes winner Tiz the Law than on any other horse in North America, but with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the Tiz the Law experience has been substantially different than the one that Sackatoga and Tagg went through with Funny Cide in 2003.
While the fun-loving characters in the Sackatoga camp embraced the spotlight back then, with their signature yellow school bus and the colorfully dressed co-owner Gus Williams, there simply isn’t much of a spotlight this time around.
That’s OK with the veteran Tagg, who has been gracious in his dealings with the media but would be just as happy to train his horses and be left alone. But there is a distinctly different atmosphere surrounding Tiz the Law, because of schedule changes and limitations on who is allowed on track, which includes only a few owners and media, and no fans.
Tiz the Law will be a big favorite in the Travers on Saturday and will continue his pursuit of the Triple Crown in the re-scheduled Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5 and re- scheduled Preakness on Oct. 3. Funny Cide won the Derby and Preakness under typical circumstances and lost the Belmont to Empire Maker and never got to race in the Travers due to illness, although there frequently was a strong media presence at Tagg’s barn in Saratoga.
“So it’s just been so different,” Knowlton said early Saturday morning, after Tiz the Law breezed at 5:30 a.m. “The Triple Crown … five weeks. This is taking months. It’s really a big difference. The wait between the races, particularly the Belmont wait, was pretty difficult. Just hoping he’s going to stay good and nothing’s going to happen.
“And obviously the longer time between races, the more opportunity there is for something bad to happen. Fortunately, it hasn’t, and now we’re right on the edge of the Travers. Now we can go to a four-week. We’re a lot more used to that.”
Besides a profound difference in the surrounding hoopla, Tiz the Law is a departure from Funny Cide both in personality and running style.
Funny Cide, a gelding, was headstrong and could be difficult to manage, while Tiz the Law is assertive without being overbearing and is a willing workhorse who’s easy to ride in the mornings, according to regular exercise rider Heather Smullen, niece of assistant trainer Robin Smullen.
Funny Cide’s wild ride in 2003 included a controversy that ultimately was debunked, after a Miami Herald photo and story questioned whether jockey Jose Santos had been holding an illegal electrical device during the Kentucky Derby.
Funny Cide’s season was by far the most notable in Tagg’s career.
“It was a big thrill, unfortunately it didn’t last the way we wanted it to, but he still went on and won some nice races and he was a real good horse,” Tagg said. “They are both different horses, both very good horses, very fast horses, very generous horses. They were different physically and mentally.”
“Both of them were very exciting,” Knowlton said. “This one is so much different because this run really started last October with the Champagne. Everybody who saw that race knew that this horse could be somebody special. Then we gave him all the time and put our plan together to go to the Holy Bull and the Florida Derby.
“Then there was some concern that we weren’t even going to run in the Florida Derby. That happened, and then everything went crazy, because nobody knew what was coming next and when it was going to come and where it was going to be. But you’ve got to give Barclay all the credit in the world to keep him sharp enough to go and win the Belmont after we finally figured out what was going to happen and where.”
Funny Cide ran 38 times in his career, but by the time Tiz the Law makes his seventh career start in the Travers, he will have run at Saratoga the same number of times as Funny Cide.
He was eighth in the 2006 Woodward and second to Evening Attire in the 2004 Saratoga Cup.
As a 3-year-old, Funny Cide was third in the Haskell at Monmouth Park in the run-up to the Travers, and he never made that race.
“It just didn’t fit in there,” Tagg said. “We ran him on a very, very hot day in the Haskell. After he cooled out, he wasn’t acting right and he had a temperature of 105 and he was very sick after that for awhile. There was no way I was going to even try to rush him back for the Travers.
“I had put August pretty much out of my mind. After we didn’t win the Triple Crown, it was kind of a race-to-race thing. We could use good sense.”
“I tell people my second biggest disappointment during the whole Funny Cide run was not being able to even run in the Travers, not about not being able to win it,” Knowlton said. “So when he got sick, that was a bitter disappointment to follow the disappointment of not winning the Triple Crown.
“Now we’ve got a second chance. It’s not too often you get a second chance the way we have with this horse, and to do things we couldn’t do. We checked one box. We won the Belmont, and it would be wonderful to check this box and win the Travers.”