And when the Belmont Stakes went Saturday to Tiz the Law by an outclassing four lengths at cavernous and spectator-less Belmont Park and to trainer Barclay Tagg, jockey Manuel Franco and the owners of Sackatoga Stable of Saratoga Springs in Upstate New York, there was something historically peculiar about it all.
When Tiz the Law got to the top of the stretch and then insisted upon a stretch-long, one-horse coronation, it opened a Triple Crown season reconfigured because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, leaving him to pursue the rare three-pronged feat in a Kentucky Derby still 11 weeks off on Sept. 5 and perhaps a Preakness still 15 weeks away on Oct. 3. That’s such a yawning set of gaps — triple the season’s normal duration — that Tagg figures to run Tiz the Law in the “midsummer Derby,” the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, in August. That mile and a quarter will be longer than this Belmont, shortened from its usual mile and a half to a mile and an eighth because the horses hadn’t had sufficient chances for seasoning.
“You’re never sure if you’ve got them exactly right, and this guy [Tiz the Law] makes it easy for you,” said Tagg, the patient man’s patient man who won the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Funny Cide. “He says: ‘I’m ready to go. Let’s race,’ ” — although presumably not in fluent English.
He did, however, give the sport its best chance of generating lots of fluent-English chatter across the coming months as it plies this unfamiliar schedule. Through the long-ago winter and early spring, Tiz the Law had been widely presumed the best 3-year-old going. He had won four of his first five races, including the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park near Miami in February and the Florida Derby at the same joint in late March.
Then, as the pandemic hit, the sport went dark for a while, the big races got addled and saddled with postponement, and mighty rivals got injuries that left Tiz the Law’s path to his latest winner’s circle far less cluttered. They included Nadal and Charlatan, both trainees of Bob Baffert, that master of the Triple Crown in recent years with sweeps by American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018).
By the time the Saturday post time came, the oldest of the Triple Crown races had set its own record for noiselessness. The voices of track commentators echoed. The old grandstand of a thousand roars had gone dashed to hushed. From trackside, you could hear the slaps of whips on horsehide. That all suited Tagg, who has never fit the description of attention hog.
“Actually, it’s very nice,” he said of the silence. “I can’t complain about that. I’m not trying to be a jerk about it, but I thought the quiet was kind of nice.”
He explained: “When they’re all there, your horse gets really nervous. . . . It’s nice to see no commotion for a change. You work and work and work on these horses, and you bring them over on Saturday afternoon, and you feel like everything’s falling apart.”
He added: “Even after the race, it was nice. There wasn’t so much shouting.”
Considering Tiz the Law’s ownership group, that would have meant some serious shouting because the group numbers somewhere in the mid-30s. But the New York Racing Association didn’t allow owners for this race, so about half the Sackatoga stakeholders met in Pennell’s Restaurant in Saratoga Springs, beneath a covered patio.
“We’re going to have about half our partners there, about a group of 35 or so, with spouses and significant others,” lead owner Jack Knowlton said Wednesday. “We’re just going to have to lay down the law if he wins, for people not to be kissing and hugging. But that’s going to be my job for the day.”
He and Tagg had traveled the kissing-and-hugging road before, 17 years ago when Funny Cide stirred up a spring of enchantment, given the owners’ fetching lack of staggering wealth. Knowlton still will tell you he wishes that it hadn’t rained on Belmont Stakes day in 2003, when Empire Maker proved inarguably best, Funny Cide ran third, and another Triple Crown aspiration went sigh.
Yet Funny Cide remains the only New York-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby, and now Tiz the Law has become just the fourth New York-bred to win New York’s uppermost race. Having joined the world at Twin Creeks Farm in Upstate New York, he joined some near-ancient names Saturday: Ruthless (1867), Fenian (1869) and Forester (1882).
They might have reveled over that in Saratoga, but reveling didn’t fit in here, where the only noise bustled in the memory bank. As big-race time approached, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) appeared on video to “welcome you,” if not all that many yous, and proclaimed himself “proud that the first major sporting event in our country after the covid crisis will take place at Belmont Park.”
He closed with, “Riders up!”
At 5:32 p.m., they played Sinatra’s “New York, New York” to no cheers.
The shortened distance meant the horses began in the distant corner of the backside rather than their usual close-up.
“It is now post time,” went the public address, to no roar.
“And they’re all in the gate.” No roar.
“And they’re off.” No roar.
Then the race went formulaically. Tiz the Law really was superior to the others, entered on their wishes and hopes and maybe even larks, finishing in 1 minute 46.53 seconds. Dr Post ran second, and Max Player was third.
"It looked to me like everything worked like clockwork,” Tagg said. He had mastered the many unknowns of the spring, the three-month layoff. “I didn’t do anything really strenuous with him,” he said.
Then Franco dismounted and told Tagg that Tiz the Law, whom Tagg describes as aggressive and a biter and a kicker, “did everything so naturally.” Then Franco, the fall 2019 top jockey at Belmont Park whom Tagg describes as “a good little kid,” “a natural rider” with “a natural feel for the horse,” had to hurry off to ride the next race. He stopped off to do a TV interview. “Man, he was unbelievable,” Franco said. And on the Triple Crown prospect: “Of course. I’ve got the horse. I’m in good hands.”
Just before he said that, a sole voice had cascaded through the silence from the third deck.
“Way to go, Manny!” it went, so audibly.
“Thank you, Andy!” Franco hollered back up.
Thanks to the novel coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Triple Crown will look nothing like any that have come before it. Instead of being the last race in the annual series, Saturday’s Belmont Stakes will serve as the first leg and be raced at a shorter distance than usual. Then, instead of the traditional two-week wait between races, the winner will have more than two months until the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5. The Preakness Stakes then will conclude things Oct. 3.
“It’s a little screwed up but it’s still the Triple Crown,” Jack Knowlton, head of the Sackatoga Stable partnership that owns Belmont Stakes favorite Tiz the Law, said in May. “Some people will complain it’s not the Triple Crown and if they want to put an asterisk on it, that’s fine. And if they don’t want to hold the horse who wins all three of the races in the same high regard as the other Triple Crown winners because he didn’t race the mile-and-a-half at the end, I get it and I’m okay with that. I would still love to win all three races.”
Here’s what you need to know about the race, which will be held without fans present at Belmont Park on Long Island.
All times Eastern.
Post time: 5:42 p.m.
TV/streaming: NBC’s coverage begins at 2:45 p.m. The network will stream the race at NBCSports.com and on its NBC Sports app.
Field (with morning-line odds)
- Tap It to Win (6-1)
- Sole Volante (9-2)
- Max Player (15-1)
- Modernist (15-1)
- Farmington Road (15-1)
- Fore Left (30-1)
- Jungle Runner (50-1)
- Tiz the Law (6-5)
- Dr Post (5-1)
- Pneumatic (8-1)
So it’s a shorter race than usual? Yes. The “Test of the Champion” usually is a grueling 1½-mile (12-furlong) lap around the track at Belmont Park, but this year’s race has been shortened to 1⅛ miles (nine furlongs) to “properly account for the schedule adjustments to the Triple Crown series and overall calendar for 3-year-olds in training,” the New York Racing Association said earlier this year.
“It was tough to ask developing 3-year-old horses to go that far after not racing for months,” NYRA chief executive David O’Rourke told the New York Times.
What else is different? Because of its temporary position as the first race of the Triple Crown, this year’s Belmont Stakes will be included in the Road to the Kentucky Derby points race, the system by which horses qualify for the Run for the Roses. The winner of Saturday’s race will receive 150 points — all but guaranteeing a spot at Churchill Downs in September — with 60 points to second, 30 to third, and 15 to fourth.
Does the Belmont Stakes have a cocktail? Why yes, it does: the Belmont Jewel. Back in 2016, we got some mixologists to make that drink even better, and here’s the recipe.