Jack Knowlton Diary: Entering Derby With ‘World of Confidence’ in Tiz the Law

The Life
Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve favorite Tiz the Law exercising on the main track at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Managing partner Jack Knowlton and his fellow Sackatoga Stable owners stepped out of a yellow school bus at Churchill Downs to gain an upset victory with New York-bred gelding Funny Cide in the 2003 Kentucky Derby. In another unexpected twist, Knowlton and Sackatoga have returned to the national spotlight with another stellar New York-bred.

Tiz the Law will enter Saturday’s $3 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve as a solid favorite after sweeping the Feb. 1 Holy Bull Stakes, March 28 Curlin Florida Derby, June 20 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, and Aug. 8 Runhappy Travers Stakes through his first four starts this year. The Constitution colt is the runaway leader among 3-year-olds in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly poll.

Knowlton has been maintaining a diary that is now taking followers of America’s Best Racing through a season deeply impacted by the pandemic. The Derby is not being run in May for the first time since 1945 and will represent the middle leg of the Triple Crown. The Preakness Stakes has been rescheduled for Oct. 3 at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.

Here is the seventh installment of Knowlton’s diary, written with Tom Pedulla:

I thought Tiz the Law had the chance to be special even before he ran. Not only did he work quickly and seemingly effortlessly, but it was difficult to pull him up. He just kept rolling.

When he won his career debut by 4 1/4 lengths against state-breds last Aug. 8 at our home track of Saratoga Race Course, I cannot say I was surprised. He simply performed the way he had been training.

The only issue was what to do next. We wanted to be sure not to ask too much of him too soon. We debated whether we should limit him to stakes offered for 2-year-old New York-breds, which is the way we handled Funny Cide, or jump into the deep end of the pool by competing in the Champagne Stakes, the most prestigious race for juveniles in New York.

Jack Knowlton after the 2019 Champagne Stakes. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Speed figures indicated he would be the horse to beat in the Champagne and he continued to train exceptionally well. Our trainer, Barclay Tagg, who prefers to err on the side of caution, agreed that he deserved the opportunity to win a Grade 1, even if it was his second start. With Manny Franco aboard for the first time because Junior Alvarado opted for Green Light Go, Tiz the Law had everything go his way. He coasted by four lengths.

The Champagne is part of the Breeders Cup Challenge Series, so the winner gains a fees-paid berth in the $2 million Juvenile, held last November at Santa Anita. As big as that purse is and as much as we welcome the Challenge Series, I cannot say we were all that tempted to enter. The Juvenile is always a demanding race and Barclay was concerned about shipping such a young horse across the country and back.

We instead targeted the Kentucky Jockey Club. It gave Tiz plenty of time to recover from the Champagne and it would give him a race at Churchill Downs, which we felt would probably be important down the road.

I still think the plan was sound, but things did not go our way. The track came up sloppy and the other riders did a good job of pinning Tiz and Manny inside. I do not think the slop was the problem that day, nor do I think Tiz has any issues with the Churchill surface the way some horses do.

A number of partners were upset with Manny’s ride, but these things happen in racing, especially when you have a young horse with a target on its back. I told the partners we needed to draw a line through the race and move forward. When I discussed the jockey situation with Barclay, he was adamant that we needed to stick with Manny. He was concerned about getting into a situation where we might be frequently changing riders, and he had every confidence in Manny’s ability. He sure was right there.

Other than the pandemic and its many repercussions, this season could not have gone any better for us to this point. Tiz arrives at the Derby, now the second leg of the Triple Crown, with a 4-for-4 record that includes three Grade 1s. As I see it, we are chasing more than the Triple Crown. In winning the Travers, we can join Whirlaway as the only horses to pull off the Quadruple Triple Crown, something Whirlaway accomplished in 1941.

I have to think Barclay already has punched his ticket into the Hall of Fame with his masterful handling of Tiz under incredibly difficult circumstances. Despite an uncertain racing schedule due to COVID-19, he has kept Tiz at a high level throughout. There has never even been a hint of a drop-off, a wonderful testament to Barclay and his team — assistant trainer Robin Smullen, exercise rider Heather Smullen, and foreman Juan Barajas Saldana.

Tiz’s two works since the Travers are showing us that he is as sharp as ever. The only worry was a poor forecast last weekend at Saratoga that had us very concerned. It looked as though we would work on Sunday, but at 4:53 a.m. on Saturday I received a text from Robin to get to the track as soon as possible. Tiz had beaten everyone else; now we would ask him to beat the rain. And he did, drilling five furlongs in 59.21 seconds for Heather and galloping out as powerfully as ever on a fast track shortly before the skies opened.

It is less than ideal that we drew post 17 in a field of 18 for the Derby. Obviously, we would have preferred to be a bit more inside. But it would have been a far greater concern if we had drawn the rail or any post that could have led to our getting buried inside.

Tiz has been breaking so sharply that I would anticipate that Manny will be able to secure an excellent striking position in the early going. Manny will be able to work out a good trip and his teammate will help him. Manny has all the confidence in the world right now in this horse, and Tiz will do whatever Manny asks to put himself in a good position.

I go into the Derby with a world of confidence. Why wouldn’t I? I’m a big numbers guy. Tiz ran the fourth-fastest Travers in history and, if he had not been geared down, he could have run the second-fastest. He is the only 3-year-old proven at a mile and a quarter.

I do not want to be cocky or anything. If I did not have a piece of Tiz and I am an outsider looking in, I am saying, ‘How are you going to beat this horse?’

I’ve been in racing for decades now, long enough to understand that the unexpected can, and sometimes does, happen. Horses can stumble. Horses can be interfered with. Bad trips are part of the game, especially in a big field.

At least on paper, Tiz is simply better than every horse in the field. And it’s not close.

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