Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 21, 2020

Tiz The Law Was Right On Time

The race was two weeks late and four months early. That’s not meant to be a brain-teasing riddle, but an illustration of how the coronavirus pandemic has turned the sports calendar upside down and inside out. The Belmont Stakes, which went off late Saturday afternoon, was originally scheduled for June 6, but was delayed two weeks by the New York Racing Association when it put together the spring meeting at Belmont Park after racing, which had been shut down at all New York tracks in March, was cleared to resume.

That original schedule of course had the Belmont in its traditional position as the third jewel of the Triple Crown, three weeks after the Preakness States and five weeks distant from the first Saturday in May’s Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. But the usual dates for both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness were scrubbed early in the nationwide response to the pandemic, with the former moved to September and the latter set for Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course early in October. Maintaining the usual order of the Triple Crown would have thus required moving the Belmont to the middle of autumn. However, that would have pushed it up against the two-day card of the Breeders’ Cup, still scheduled for Keeneland the first weekend in November. Horse racing has no central authority, no commissioner of thoroughbreds to mete out dates and maintain order, so the NYRA had little choice but to set this new date and shuffle the Triple Crown deck for 2020.

With the Belmont now leading off the Triple Crown, and with the limited number of prep races available to the contenders over the last three months, the race was further altered in a much more meaningful way than its date. Long known as the “Test of the Champion” for its grueling mile and a half distance, one full trip around the massive track nicknamed “Big Sandy,” this year’s Belmont was reduced to a mile and an eighth, changing it from the longest of the Triple Crown races to the shortest. The race’s shortened distance, on the expansive Belmont oval, also meant that the first Triple Crown race of the year wasn’t even contested around two turns. Instead the horses were loaded into a gate at the far end of a long chute leading onto the back stretch. The mile and an eighth was covered by then racing down that long straightaway, around the far turn, and back to the finish line in front of Belmont Park’s huge grandstand, the largest ever built at a racetrack.

Anyone sitting near that finish line would have needed a good pair of binoculars to track the field as the horses broke from that distant gate. But like virtually all sporting events these days, the Belmont was run without fans present, so the tens of thousands of seats along the front stretch were empty save for less than a hundred spectators – trainers, grooms, track officials and workers involved with NBC’s broadcast.

So instead of a deafening collective roar from upwards of 100,000 throats, the horses were met by the gentle chirping of birds as the field turned for home. Not that either riders or mounts were listening; by that point, the ten jockeys and their steeds were keenly focused on the task at hand. That one coupling in the group had a decidedly different job than all the others was made apparent by a single backwards glance. Manny Franco, the 25-year-old jockey aboard pre-race favorite Tiz the Law, twice turned his head to the right to survey the horses behind him, seeing if any looked like they possessed an overtaking charge. He did so even though at that moment Franco had not yet put Tiz the Law in front. That position was held, as it had been almost from the start, by Tap It to Win, a horse with proven early speed that some hoped would be enough to prevail over the shorter than usual distance.

But Franco taking the time to check on his pursuers was striking proof that he was no longer worried about passing the frontrunner. His confidence in Tiz the Law was well placed. Having checked on the traffic to his rear, Franco asked his horse for a higher gear and the favorite accelerated past a tiring Tap It to Win as the two raced by the quarter pole. “They’re into the stretch of the Belmont, and Tiz the Law has taken charge,” exclaimed veteran announcer Larry Collmus, and indeed the grandson of Tapit and direct descendant of A.P. Indy, two of the most successful sires in recent thoroughbred history, was making this Belmont his own. In the middle of the lane the closer Dr. Post attempted a late charge, but Irad Ortiz Jr. didn’t have nearly enough horse to challenge the favorite. It was Tiz the Law by two, then three, and finally by four lengths at the wire, with Dr. Post second and longshot Max Player getting up for third.

While the pandemic made this Belmont historic in several less than ideal ways, the result wrote some positive racing history. Tiz the Law was bred in New York, by itself not surprising given the active racing industry in the Empire State and the presence of two of the country’s elite tracks in Belmont Park and Saratoga, as well as Aqueduct. But the biggest race in New York has not been kind to horses bred there. When Tiz the Law crossed the wire, he became the first New York bred to capture the Belmont since Forester in 1882. The win also brought a measure of redemption to Sackatoga Stable, the consortium of middle-class racing lovers from upstate New York who banded together years ago to form a decidedly small-time ownership group. In 2003 Sackatoga’s horse Funny Cide, which the group had purchased for the less than princely sum of $75,000, stunned the sport’s establishment by winning the Kentucky Derby, and then two weeks later romped in the Preakness. But the Belmont’s mile and a half proved too daunting. Funny Cide finished third.

Tiz the Law didn’t have to run that far Saturday, but the horse and his connections – owner Sackatoga Stable, jockey Franco, and 82-year-old trainer Barclay Tagg – get full credit for the victory. Now the Belmont winner and horse racing fans must wait until September for this year’s Triple Crown chase to be renewed. One of the hardest feats in sports has been made even more difficult by the pandemic’s impact on the racing calendar. Horses currently sidelined by injury may be in the starting gate at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Other races will be run in the meantime, the results of which could alter the equine landscape. By Derby day some other three-year-old may have emerged as the betting and fan favorite. But for now, Tiz the Law is the one.

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