It’s always something when somebody on hoofs who did not join the world in Kentucky joins the winner’s circle at the Derby. It has happened only 34 times out of 145 since 1875, and only once in the past 15 runnings — in 2014, with the pixie-dust story arc of that Californian named California Chrome. So it just figures that even if Tiz the Law sustains his dominance of 2020, it would flatter New York … and Kentucky.
He was conceived in Kentucky, in Versailles.
His late mom traveled to New York, part of a general cooperation between two farms.
He joined all the earthly beings as a Bay horse with a big blaze on March 19, 2017, in New York.
He lived 90 days there per agreement, then returned to Kentucky to grow up, not to mention relish the equine pool at Twin Creeks Racing Stables in Versailles.
He returned to New York for sale as a yearling in August 2018.
That means two sets of farm people in two different states watched him win the Belmont Stakes in June and the Travers in August with mixtures of pride and wonder and happy disbelief. They know that for all the consuming toil they exert, having something like this happen in life borders on the farcical.
“A lot of times when it seems like nothing works in our business,” said Becky Thomas, the owner of Sequel, the farm in New York, “and then sometimes [there come] the opposite occasions, to where you think, ‘Wow, that was like the best-laid plan, like clockwork.’ ”
“We dream these things,” said Randy Gullatt, the team manager at Twin Creeks Farm in Kentucky. “We work hard every day to have something like this happen. But, you know, the odds of something like it are sort of like playing the lottery.”
“It’s never lost its fascination for any of us who really enjoy what we do,” Thomas said of the moments of the births.
“If it was easy, it wouldn’t mean this much,” Gullatt said. “It’s so difficult a game.”
“We all think we are breeding to win the Derby,” Thomas said.
That’s because, of course, humans are a bunch of nutty dreamers.
Weirdness, drama and signals from the sky appear to have been absent when Tiz the Law arrived, a partly cloudy and commonplace-cold night of which Thomas said, “Tiz the Law was just a normal, good guy, and ‘Let’s go back to bed now.’ ” She followed the proceedings from Ocala, Fla., where she lives while ricocheting between her farms in Florida and New York in non-pandemic years. “It was a non-eventful birth, and he was a very attractive foal,” she said.
Well, there was that one oddity, for anyone with Derby delusions roaming and addling the brain. He didn’t show up first on one of Kentucky’s regal farms that help supply one of the country’s best jet-window views, looking like some gorgeous quilt of shades of green. He turned up at a beautiful, accomplished farm just east of the Hudson River, not all that far from the Massachusetts line, in New York state.
That’s because Twin Creeks sends some mares to Sequel each year, mindful of New York’s commercial friendliness toward breeders, a matter on which Thomas can educate in detail. “That’s why I have a farm in the state of New York,” she said. While Kentucky stands as the unchallenged kingdom, New York-breds have had some heydays in recent years, including at the Breeders’ Cup, and they can access some choice New York races. If a foal stays in New York for the first 90 days, he or she becomes New York-bred, officially.
“Even though he’s foaled actually in New York, the sire he’s from is in Kentucky and the horse actually spent the majority of his young life in Kentucky,” Gullatt said. “He was raised just like a horse from Kentucky would have been, except he spent the first 90 days of his life in New York.”
Those 90 days, and the ones just beyond, found him as the wagerers have, given his 6-for-7 life thus far: easygoing, uninterested in trouble, eager to compete.
Thomas: “That’s the way he was as a foal. He didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t get in any trouble. He wasn’t sick. He was just an autopilot kind of horse. I wish they could all be like that.”
Gullatt: “The best strength with him that I saw was he was very smart, very healthy, very athletic and a very happy horse, lots of energy every day, and he was just extremely easy.”
And Thomas: “He doesn’t have to have everything his own way. He can come from off of [the pace]. He can come from the front and near the front. He has broken a bit tardily and won.”
By summer 2018, the time came to return to New York. Read the chart of the Fasig-Tipton sales of New York-bred yearlings at Saratoga in mid-August 2018, and the difficulty of the game grows still clearer. As ever, the one we end up following doubles as an extreme rarity. Right around Tiz the Law on the list, there are yearlings from sires with familiar names from winner’s circles of the various classics: Tonalist, Animal Kingdom, Empire Maker, Awesome Again.
This time, the yearling with hip No. 311, from the mare Tizfiz and the first crop of the 2014 Florida Derby winner Constitution, went for $110,000, and he went to Jack Knowlton, and that rustled up some memories.
In 2003, when zero of the 128 runnings of the Kentucky Derby to date had gone to New York-breds, Knowlton and five of his high school friends from very Upstate New York had their sudden walk on the promenade of semi-fame. They had opted to go into horse racing in an act of madness at a non-high-falutin’ Memorial Day gathering, and now they owned Funny Cide, the gelding who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Just as with Tiz the Law, Funny Cide was bred in Kentucky and his mare was shipped to New York. Just as with Tiz the Law, Funny Cide got assigned to a horseman’s-horseman type of trainer, Barclay Tagg, and his assistant, Robin Smullen. For a divergence, this 17-year span of improbability had Funny Cide bred at a big-boy farm in Kentucky, WinStar (where Constitution resides today), then his Oklahoma-bred mother shipped to New York to Saratoga Thoroughbreds. That’s where you could find farm owners Joe and Anne McMahon, who bought their farm in 1972 against the wishes of their parents, eked out a living happily and turned out as gobsmacked as everyone else.
Soon, they’re flying back from the Derby with their new roses, their fellow airplane passengers applauding them. Soon, Joe McMahon is reminding in an interview at the farm, “We eat hot dogs, you know,” and saying he needs to develop his autograph because “my autograph hasn’t yet refined to a higher level.”
Now two sets of farm toilers know the rarefied feeling, even if a pandemic mangled this Triple Crown path into Belmont, then Derby, then Preakness, sprawled across 15 yawning weeks. One of those farms, Twin Creeks, run by Gullatt and Steve Davison and Gullatt’s wife, Kim, watched Tiz the Law grab his first win at Saratoga in August 2019, suffered the death of Tiz the Law’s mother, Tizfiz, at 15 from colic, then watched Tiz the Law win the Champagne at Belmont, the Holy Bull at Gulfstream, the Florida Derby at Gulfstream, the Belmont Stakes and the Travers, in its awkward placement mid-Triple Crown.
Such an absurd path dredges evolving emotions, felt in front of TVs in Kentucky and Florida, all while mindful of New York. “When he won the Belmont,” Gullatt said, “it was a very emotional thing for me, seeing a horse we knew well, win a Classic race. When we won the Travers, I was more like a fan: Wow.”
And from Florida, Thomas said of the Travers, “That’s when I was like, ‘Buddy, you can go all the way.’”
That’s all even as Gullatt said, of course, “You can never expect these.”
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