SARATOGA SPRINGS — There’s at least one person who thinks Tiz the Law might not be the favorite for the Travers Stakes on Saturday: his own trainer, Barclay Tagg.
OK, that’s just Barclay being Barclay, when he says, “Baffert will probably be the favorite. He could bring in a skinny mule and he’d be the favorite.”
Make no mistake.
Trainer Bob Baffert did not bring a skinny mule to the Travers, Saratoga Race Course’s signature Grade I race, at a mile and a quarter for 3-year-olds chasing a $1 million purse.
He has the lightly raced but impressive Uncle Chuck lined up to make the next giant leap in his short career, against seven rivals who represent a hodgepodge of paths through a racing calendar substantially altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
By far the most prominent of them is division leader Tiz the Law, who won the Belmont Stakes on June 20 with a powerful move through the stretch under jockey Manny Franco while carrying the familiar maroon-and-gray diamond silks of Sackatoga Stable.
Speaking of altered paths, Saturday’s Travers will be the first in 151 runnings with no fans in attendance, none sprinting to reserve picnic tables early in the morning and none cramming the clubhouse, grandstand and backyard in the afternoon. It’s a condition fans have been forced to accept since opening day on July 16, but Travers Day should offer a stark reminder of how the pandemic has placed restrictions on life as we knew it.
They’ll still run a big horse race, though, and no horse has drawn more attention than Tiz the Law, undefeated from three starts dating back to the Feb. 1 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, and a deserving even-money favorite on the morning line.
“He’s not only the horse to beat in the Travers, it looks like the Kentucky Derby, too, if he stays healthy,” said trainer Chad Brown, who will saddle Peter Pan winner Country Grammer in the Travers. “If he continues to improve and handles a mile and a quarter, most likely everyone’s running for second.
“We understand that, but it’s a horse race at Saratoga. Anything can happen. It’s a big test for a 3-year-old, a mile and a quarter, so we’ll see who can do it and who can’t.”
“I’ve been very impressed with him,” Baffert said. “I think they’ve managed him really well. They picked the right spots with him, they had one hiccup when they went to Churchill Downs [last year] and he was in a tough spot the whole way around there. And since then, they’ve kept him out of trouble. But I think he’s progressed perfectly. And he’s definitely the best 3-year-old in the country right now. I’ll get an idea if I can run with him or not. I’m hoping we’re as good as he is. And so that’s why we’re going over there.”
The Travers will be shown live on FOX during a broadcast from 5-6:30 p.m. Scheduled post time for the Travers is 6:15.
The field, in post-position order with jockeys and odds, will be: First Line (David Cohen, 30-1), Country Grammer (Irad Ortiz Jr., 6-1), Uncle Chuck (Luis Saez, 5-2), Max Player (Joel Rosario, 6-1), Shivaree (Junior Alvarado, 30-1), Tiz the Law (Manny Franco, 1-1), Caracaro (Javier Castellano, 10-1) and South Bend (Jose Ortiz, 15- 1).
By all accounts, the New York-bred Tiz the Law has handled and enjoyed a flawless training program at Saratoga, which has included three five-furlong breezes as Tagg has ramped up his workouts after the colt recovered from the mile-and-an-eighth Belmont.
All eight of the Travers horses have raced at that distance at least once, but none have had the opportunity to try the mile and a quarter.
The last time a New York-bred won the Travers was 1992 (Thunder Rumble), and Sackatoga and Tagg missed out on a chance to win it with the New York-bred Funny Cide when he missed the race while coming back from an illness.
“He’s a gem to be around,” Tagg said. “He doesn’t get off his feed, he doesn’t come back here and get all nervous on the wash pit. He’s pretty cool.”
Uncle Chuck shipped in from California on Tuesday night, and although he has raced just twice, anything Baffert brings to a Saratoga Grade I race must be considered.
He has won the Travers three times with 10 horses, Thunder Gulch in 2001, Arrogate in 2016 and West Coast in 2017, and the Whitney the last two years, with McKinzie and Improbable last weekend.
“It’s huge, just like winning the Whitney is huge,” he said. “I train for my clients, and they want to be in these big races, and they want to win them.”
Country Grammer and Caracaro finished a neck apart in the Peter Pan on opening day.
It’s a relatively short turnaround for both, but Brown believes Country Grammer will like the mile and a quarter.
“He’ll have to step forward in this race and hope that maybe some of the top contenders can’t go this far,” he said.
The Mechanicville native Brown has never hit the board with any of his 10 Travers horses, the first of which was Bowman’s Causeway in seventh place in 2011.
“I was thinking about that [no fans]; if I finally win and nobody’s here, does it count?” he joked. “It’s so depressing to not have the fans here, but at least to have the meet going, NYRA’s done a super job to make the horsemen’s side at least as comfortable as they can, and the racing part’s been super. But the Travers will be a little different. But we’ll take it if we can get it.”
The Linda Rice-trained Max Player, third in the Belmont, and Shivaree are the only two Travers horses to have raced against Tiz the Law, who broke his maiden first time out at Saratoga last year.
“I’ve been training at Belmont, not at Saratoga, which is a little unusual,” Rice said. “Coming in from the Belmont, he was coming off a bit of a break so I trained pretty aggressively. Coming into this race, I backed off him a little bit and did more maintenance breezes. I wasn’t quite as aggressive with him, but I think he’s ready.”
Shivaree finished second to Tiz the Law in the Florida Derby and most recently was 11th in the Blue Grass at Keeneland behind Art Collector, who is the 4-5 favorite in Sunday’s Ellis Park Derby in Kentucky. That race is offering Kentucky Derby qualifying points on a 50-20-10-5 scale, while the Travers is at 100-50-20-10.
Sackatoga, which won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Funny Cide, will be allowed to bring 12 of its 35 partners in Tiz the Law onto the grounds for the Travers.
“It’s hard to believe that lightning strikes twice, but it has, and we’re just enjoying the ride,” Sackatoga operating manager Jack Knowlton said. “It’s a different ride this time, because Funny Cide snuck up on everybody. But this guy, when he won the Champagne, he was on everybody’s radar screen.”