SARATOGA SPRINGS — It’s a different Derby for Sackatoga Stable this year.
Well, it is for everybody, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there are a few clear parallels for the Saratoga Springs-based ownership group between the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Saturday’s 146th Run for the Roses. That’s where it ends.
For the second time, their horse is a New York-bred, and managing partner Jack Knowlton has lined up some yellow school buses to transport the gang a few miles from their hotel in Louisville to Churchill Downs, as they did in 2003.
The fervent hope and expectation now is that Tiz the Law’s fortunes will match those of Funny Cide, who won the 2003 Derby by 1 3/4 lengths and went on to win the Preakness, too, before losing to Empire Maker in the Belmont.
Unlike Funny Cide, who went off at odds of almost 13-1 in the betting, Tiz the Law (who has already won the Belmont and Travers on this COVID-altered schedule) is 3-5 on the morning line and had his chances bolstered even further when two of the better horses in the field, Art Collector and King Guillermo, scratched out on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.
Tiz the Law and Funny Cide also have vastly different requirements for management, as Tiz the Law is a trainer’s dream, and Funny Cide was high-maintenance from a temperament standpoint. Despite what the bettors thought in 2003, Sackatoga and trainer Barclay Tagg were supremely confident in Funny Cide, and Tiz the Law hasn’t given them any reason not to feel the same way.
“When you’ve got a horse that merits that kind of respect [3-5 odds], it’s a little daunting,” Knowlton said after Tiz the Law’s breeze at Saratoga Race Course two weeks ago. “It’s a little different than Funny Cide, who went off at 12-1.
“I know how many things can happen with a 20-horse field, but you can’t help but feel good coming out of [the Travers].”
The Derby field will be 17, and Tiz the Law will carry the No. 17 saddlecloth while breaking from stall No. 18 in Churchill’s new 20-horse starting gate.
Like Funny Cide, Tiz the Law is a New York-bred, but will have tremendous residual value as a stallion. Funny Cide, who resides at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, an hour east of Louisville, was a gelding when he ran in the Derby.
Another difference between the two is that Tagg knew even before Funny Cide raced, when he was looking at the young chestnut in Ocala, Florida, that Funny Cide was Derby material.
“They’re so different,” Tagg said. “Funny Cide was really high-strung and erratic, but he had this huge stride and this huge power. I saw him work three-eighths of a mile at Tony Everard’s farm, and I said, ‘He’s a got a horse up there for sale, and if he’s not a Kentucky Derby horse, I’ll eat him.’
“And then all you guys beat me to death for the next two years about how I had Derby fever, I was crazy, I didn’t know what I was doing and all that. He’d never go a mile and a quarter. The three best races he ran were a mile and a quarter. All the breeding showed he can’t do this, he can’t do that … he was a machine, I’ll tell you what. He was a machine.”
A dangerous, difficult-to-handle machine.
Tagg recounted how Funny Cide managed to make it through the traditional Derby walkover from the barn along the outside rail to be saddled without any problem, despite 150,000 roaring fans, but then propped up and refused to move once they got in the tunnel to the paddock.
“He wasn’t afraid of anything, he’d run through a pack of wolves,” Tagg said. “We didn’t know what to do. Then he took a deep breath, and he was fine.
“When he walked in there, I tell you, I thought he was going to kill at least six or seven people. And he was just completely perfect. Walked him around once, right through the crowd, put the tack on him, took him around again with the rider.”
Another departure for the 2020 Derby, of course, is that there won’t be any fans in attendance, although some owners will be allowed in.
Tagg recounted how the late Gus Williams, one of Funny Cide’s original owners, got in a sparring match with an owner of Offlee Wild in the adjoining clubhouse box before the 2003 race.
It would become a part of the Funny Cide lore, as Williams secured a hat to wear to the winner’s circle, along with his yellow pants and blue-and-yellow checked sportcoat (Offlee Wild finished 12th).
“The guy in the box next to us had a brown derby, and Gus had a loud yellow jacket, and they got in an argument about whose horse was better,” Tagg said. “Gus loved that kind of stuff. They went at it, and finally the guy says, ‘I’ll bet you my hat against that coat.’ And Gus took him up on it. They’re coming across the finish line, I’m standing behind Gus, we’re yelling and cheering and everything, and I see this hat come over … plop.”
Tagg and Sackatoga needed some convincing that Tiz the Law would be a Derby horse, and got it when he won the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park last fall.
He’s 4-for-4 in 2020 and dominated the competition in the Belmont and Travers under jockey Manny Franco.
“I did [think about the Derby early] with Funny Cide, but I didn’t with him,” Tagg said. “As we went along, we had to think about it a little bit. We didn’t know if some of those early races were just easy because of the COVID [schedule] or whatever. But he won them all easily, he came out of them all good and he’s still going easy.”
“We haven’t gotten to the bottom of him,” Knowlton said the day after the Aug. 8 Travers. “Manny hasn’t had to ask him in any of these races, and he’s won by four lengths. I’ve got to be honest with you, I’m not worried about anybody after yesterday. Not at a mile and a quarter.
“It’s amazing. You see all the hype. All the polls have him not only as the top 3-year-old, but now he’s at the top of the list for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And the social media has been absolutely incredible. Way different than Funny Cide. Funny Cide, the hype wasn’t there until after he won the Derby.
“Really, to some extent, we’re going back to last October. He was on everybody’s radar screen when he won the Champagne. Then people lost a little bit of faith when he lost in Kentucky. Then this year he’s been flawless. He’s easily winning his races, and it’s hard to find fault with him.”
KING GUILLERMO SCRATCHES
Tampa Bay Derby winner King Guillermo, owned by retired five-time major league baseball All-Star Victor Martinez, will be scratched from the Derby due to a fever.
Trained by Juan Carlos Avila, King Guillermo was evaluated by veterinarians after the team discovered he had a fever Wednesday afternoon. Avila and Martinez made the decision Thursday to scratch.
With King Guillermo out, the Derby field is left with 17 horses. The two inside gates and the one outside gate will remain open. King Guillermo had drawn post No. 6, so Finnick the Fierce, Max Player, Enforceable, Storm the Court and Major Fed will each shift one gate over to their right.
“To race in a race like the Derby, we need him at 100%,” Avila said. “We aren’t going to be able to demonstrate how good he is like this. I think we are going to have plenty of time to show his quality. He’s going to be a great horse, and everybody knows we have to take care of the horse first. The next step is to try to get him ready for the Preakness and go from there.”
“The sad part is that Juan said yesterday was his best day here,” Martinez said. “When we left the track in the morning following training and came back in the afternoon for feed time, we discovered he had a fever. It’s just the sad part about this game.”