Sixteen years later, Sackatoga is a couple of weeks away from a Churchill Downs homecoming, ready to start Tiz the Law in the $300,000, Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes Nov. 30, the partnership's first starter at the track since the 2003 Derby. This time, a bus might not suffice; the 2-year-old New York-bred has a whole bandwagon of supporters, in the partnership and out.
Perfect in two starts, Tiz the Law is widely regarded as one of the country's top juveniles. He romped in an Aug. 8 debut at Saratoga Race Course going 6 ½ furlongs and then won the Oct. 5 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. Stuck in traffic for nearly three-quarters of that mile race, he burst past horses once shown daylight and pulled away by four lengths.
That victory earned him a free berth via the Breeders' Cup Challenge Series to the Nov. 1 TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park, where he would have been among the favorites. But free or not, Sackatoga and its conservative-minded trainer, Barclay Tagg, declined the offer.
As in 2003, Sackatoga's eye is on another prize: the Derby. The Kentucky Jockey Club was chosen as the preferred path to get him there, avoiding what the connections perceived as challenging travel for their young horse from New York to California and providing an extra four weeks of recovery between races.
"You're talking about shipping a horse 3,000 miles there, 3,000 miles back, being in a strange environment," said Jack Knowlton, managing partner of Sackatoga Stable. "We just felt, and Barclay said this, 'If you really want to have the best chance to have a nice 3-year-old, don't try to overdo it as a 2-year-old.'"
In examining options for a final start for the horse at 2 before he winters in Florida, Sackatoga chose the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club instead of the 1 1/8-mile, $250,000, Grade 2 Remsen Stakes Dec. 7 at Aqueduct, providing a more gradual extension in distance and a reduced risk of winter weather. Both the Kentucky Jockey Club and the Remsen offer qualifying points to the 2020 Kentucky Derby distributed on a 10-4-2-1 scale to the top four finishers.
The colt, by Constitution out of the Tiznow mare Tizfiz, has trained sharply at Belmont since the Champagne, rattling off spirited breezes and leaving workmates far behind on multiple occasions. After a five-furlong breeze on Nov. 17, Tagg said one more workout is scheduled on Nov. 24 before the colt makes his next start, depending on weather and other considerations.
"Originally, I thought he might not be a long-distance horse, but his stride looks like one," Tagg said. "His bearing is one. Everything about him makes it seem that nothing will be a problem for him. I might be wrong about all that. A mile and a quarter, he might not like it, I don't know.
"We've only had the two races and a bunch of workouts, and nothing seems to faze him. We're going to shoot for the big one if we can."
If Tiz the Law takes them to the 146th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, it will be without many of the original Sackatoga partners in Funny Cide. From the group of 10 owners in the 2003 Derby winner, only Knowlton and Lew Titterton remain involved with Tiz the Law. Some partners died, and others "fell away" from horse ownership, Knowlton said.
After racing, Funny Cide took up residence in the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park in December 2008, where fans continue to visit the champion 3-year-old of 2003. He has also made periodic visits to tracks such as Churchill Downs and Saratoga, where his accomplishments were celebrated. Besides the Derby, Funny Cide won such prestigious races as the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico and Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont.
Besides Knowlton and Titterton, the current group of Sackatoga owners includes 30 others from across the country, most of whom are investors in other horses in the partnership.
Sackatoga – a name derived from the original partners' roots in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., and its current ties to Saratoga Springs – typically buys only a few horses each year, all New York-breds. Other than Funny Cide, who retired with earnings of over $3.5 million, and Tiz the Law, with an expanding bankroll of $317,900, no others have won graded stakes since the partnership's inception in 2000.
Through this long stretch, Sackatoga and Tagg have remained together. Knowlton remains proud of the veteran horseman and his assistant Robin Smullen.
"I tell everybody when you have a trainer that took you to the Kentucky Derby and wins that race, which is the race that everybody in the world wants to win, you better have a very good reason to break up the partnership," Knowlton said. "Largely as the operating manager at Sackatoga Stable, I am the one that deals with Barclay and Robin on a day-to-day basis. We have a good understanding. I respect the two of them for what they do with the horses, the care they give the horses. I tell everybody, 'Barclay Tagg, give him a good horse and he knows what to do with it.' I try not to get in the way."
Tiz the Law provides Sackatoga with a new opportunity: the potential of a stallion. Knowlton already has fielded inquiries from stud farms, and more will follow should Tiz the Law win the Kentucky Jockey Club. A victory would position him for a bright 3-year-old campaign and earn him Eclipse Award support for year-end championship voting.
"Funny Cide came under the radar screen. Until he won the Derby, he had no respect from anybody, really," Knowlton said. "This guy, he's right out there. So in a sense, it's different. There was never really any pressure with Funny Cide until after he won the Derby. With this guy, everybody is scrutinizing every move you make because, at this point, he is one of the horses that people feel have a real opportunity on the first Saturday in May."