The yellow school buses are on reserve. Jack Knowlton and his merry band from Sackatoga Stable are back at the Kentucky Derby for the first time in 17 years. This time with a horse everyone knows.
Tiz the Law is 4-0 this year, winning by a combined 16 1/2 lengths. The colt is expected to be installed as the biggest Derby favorite in years when post positions are drawn on Tuesday.
Quite a difference from 2003.
That’s when Knowlton and a handful of partners arrived in Louisville with Funny Cide. Hardly a regal name, let alone a blueblood. He was a gelding — none had won the Derby since 1929 — bred far from the Kentucky bluegrass in New York and costing $75,000.
Sent off at 13-1 odds, Funny Cide won by 1 1/2 lengths, thrilling the Sackatoga group that rode school buses to the race.
“Everybody was against him,” trainer Barclay Tagg recalled. “I even bet on him, and that was the first bet I had in 20 years and the last since then.”
Funny Cide went on to win the Preakness and set up a Triple Crown try in the Belmont, where he finished third. Along the way, he built a big fan base and remains popular in retirement an hour down the road from Churchill Downs.
Knowlton has been trying to get back to the Derby ever since. He has kept the same trainer in Tagg, now 82. His ownership group has expanded to 35 people, and yes, they’ve got two school buses lined up. A third is on call.
Knowlton is scrambling to get enough tickets. With no fans allowed because of the coronavirus pandemic, the secondary market has evaporated. “Having disappointed partners is not something I look forward to,” he said.
There has been little disappointment with Tiz the Law. He has proven redemptive for Sackatoga and Tagg, winning the Belmont Stakes and Travers. After losing the Belmont, Funny Cide didn’t run in the 2003 Travers because of a fever.
Tiz the Law opened what Knowlton calls a “backwards Triple Crown” with a Belmont victory on June 20 — the first New York-bred horse in 138 years to do so.
Instead of completing the series of three races over five weeks, the shortened Belmont kicked it off for the first time because of the pandemic. The Derby is Saturday — four months after its usual first Saturday in May date — with the Preakness winding it up on Oct. 3.
Tiz the Law has proven he can handle the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles, having won the Travers by an impressive 5 1/2 lengths three weeks ago. Now, he’s leaving his home state of New York for the first time since March to run at Churchill Downs, the site of his only loss last year.
“Funny Cide came in under the radar,” Knowlton said. “This guy has been way above the radar. It’s a little daunting.”
Sackatoga paid $110,000 for Tiz the Law. He already has earned more than $1.6 million. A Derby victory would be worth $1.86 million.
Nothing about Tiz the Law or his success fazes Tagg. He is his own man, known for putting his horses first, never rushing into things or running them when they’re not ready. Hearing him describe Tiz the Law, the taciturn trainer might as well be talking about himself.
“He’s not overly nervous, he’s not excitable, he doesn’t beat himself,” Tagg said.
With his health in mind, Tagg drove himself to Louisville from upstate New York. Longtime companion and assistant trainer Robin Smullen stayed behind to oversee other horses. Along with face masks, he packed vitamins and doses of zinc.
“I don’t like to talk about my age,” he said. “I’m fit, sound and healthy.”
Tagg has toiled for 60 years in a small operation far from the spotlight. Funny Cide and Tiz the Law are his biggest horses. There are suggestions that Tagg finally could land in racing's Hall of Fame should Tiz the Law win the Triple Crown.
Five-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert judges a potential Hall of Famer by whether he'd want them to train a horse for him.
“I would," Baffert said of Tagg. “A great trainer doesn't mess up a great horse. He's done a fantastic job.”
Tagg appreciates Knowlton's loyalty, calling the owner “a class act.” They've shared the unforgiving sport's highs and lows, and relish being on the upswing again.
“It’s nice to have a horse that everybody thinks is the one to beat,” Knowlton said. “I quite honestly believe he’s going to win.”
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