It took 17 long years of waiting, but the moment was everything Jack Knowlton expected.
Maybe it was even better.
As Knowlton held a box with a trophy in reward for Tiz the Law’s decisive victory in the $1 million Runhappy Travers Stakes, the founder and operational manager of the group that owns the son of Constitution, had a smile that even a facial mask could not hide.
“Absolutely this was very special. [Tiz the Law] performed even better than we could have hoped,” said the head of Sackatoga Stable, who has long lamented missing the 2003 Travers in his hometown of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with the stable’s first classic winner, Funny Cide. “We were confident going into the race, but we saw what happened last week [when Midnight Bisou was beaten in the Personal Ensign]. You know this is the ‘Graveyard of Favorites,’ but I was hoping they closed the gates on that last weekend.
“We’re getting redemption 17 years later.”
Saratoga Race Course’s penchant for upsets stood about as much of a chance of stopping Tiz the Law as the six other 3-year-olds who lined up against trainer Barclay Tagg’s Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets winner and 1-2 favorite in the Travers — which turned out to be none at all.
The New York-bred Tiz the Law toyed with his rivals in winning by 5 ½ lengths over Caracaro under a savvy ride by jockey Manny Franco in the Aug. 8, 1 1/4-mile “Mid-Summer Derby” at the Spa and removed any doubt over his status as a heavy favorite for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, where he will resume his quest to become the sport’s 14th Triple Crown winner.
“Hopefully, we’ll continue on this roll and this is a great springboard to go to Kentucky. I think he’s proven today that he’s certainly a mile-and-a-quarter horse,” Knowlton said. “Barclay said that all along. I think as most of you know, Barclay hoped that the Belmont Stakes would be a mile and a half instead of a mile and an eighth.”
Knowlton and Tagg have already experienced the thrill of winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes with Funny Cide. Yet in New York’s two biggest races, the gelding was third in the Belmont Stakes and missed the Travers due to an illness.
Given that Tagg’s stable numbers just 25 horses and Sackatoga is campaigning just six of them, being able to pick up wins in both of those Grade 1 stakes with Tiz the Law made Saturday a day neither will forget.
“I’ve always wanted to win the Travers,” said Tagg, who saddled his first winner in 1972 and expressed his gratitude to groom Juan Barajas Saldana and assistant trainer Robin Smullen for their work with Tiz the Law. “It’s been in my head my whole life. I don’t know why, but now it’s happened and I couldn’t be happier.”
For Knowlton, the odds a small stable overcame to find and develop a horse into a Belmont Stakes and Travers winner only heightened his appreciation of the moment.
“It’s something I’ll never forget. It’s a highlight,” Knowlton said. “After winning the Kentucky Derby, which is really the highlight for anyone who is involved in this sport, this is easily number two. It’s quite an accomplishment for our little stable of New York-breds, and for Barclay Tagg training them, to win the two biggest races in New York. We’re just thrilled to death.”
The only regret for Knowlton was that Saratoga was closed to fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic and he could only attend the race with 11 other licensed owners from the 35-person Sackatoga group.
“I wish there was 50,000-plus here today to see this performance live,” Knowlton said. “But we’re fortunate that we were able to run these races and that [the New York Racing Association] made an accommodation for some of the owners to be here.”
What most people had to watch on television was a performance that accounted for Tiz the Law’s sixth win in seven starts and his third straight Grade 1 win, a stretch dating back to the Curlin Florida Derby in late March. Like his five previous victories, the bay colt with earnings of $2,015,300 was once again victorious by at least three lengths, and after extending his dominance to the 10-furlong distance of the Kentucky Derby, one can wonder if other horsemen will finally get the message. Though the Travers was a Kentucky Derby point race, with 100-40-20-10 points going to the top four finishers, that may be a moot point after Saturday.
Are 19 rivals really going to face Tiz the Law, who leads with 372 points, on the first Saturday in September at Churchill Downs?
“He gave me chills,” said Franco, who rode in the Travers for only the second time and was ninth on that occasion five years ago. “When I pressed the button, he just took off. He accelerated really hard. After that, I took a peak back and he was going away and I just saved horse. I’m looking forward to the next race.”
Tiz the Law’s victory made him just the third New York -bred to win the Travers and the first since Thunder Rumble in 1992.
Amoss Pushes Right Buttons With Serengeti Empress
Steering clear of Midnight Bisou is a wise idea for anyone with an older filly or mare, and usually it proves to be a highly astute move.
A case in point is trainer Tom Amoss. In late June, he sent out 2019 Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress to face Midnight Bisou in the Fleur de Lis Stakes. The 4-year-old daughter of Alternation showed her customary early speed in the 1 1/8-mile stakes, but at the finish line she was fourth behind the victorious 2019 champion older dirt female, a distant 10 1/4 lengths behind.
So with an 11th-place finish in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap before that in his filly’s past performances, Amoss regrouped and pointed Serengeti Empress toward her first one-turn sprint since she ran her heart out but had to settle for a runner-up finish in last year’s Longines Test Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, a half-length behind Covfefe, who was ultimately named the champion sprinter and 3-year-old filly.
He entered her in the seven-furlong, $300,000 Ballerina Stakes on the Aug. 8 card at the Spa, and the turn back in distance brought Serengeti Empress back into top form.
Despite breaking a step slow in the Grade 1 race, Serengeti Empress was able to rush up along the rail under jockey Luis Saez and duel for the lead before pulling clear and holding off a stretch bid by Bellafina to win by a length.
“We pointed to this race since she was well beaten in her last race while going a route of ground,” Amoss said. “We wanted to avoid Midnight Bisou. But more importantly, when you win the Kentucky Oaks, you are almost married to continue to run in these two-turn races, and today we got an opportunity to move to a middle distance and I think we found a home here.”
For certain, Amoss found out where Serengeti Empress will be spending the afternoon of Nov. 7 as the victory in the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race assured owner Joel Politi’s filly of a free “Win and You’re In” spot in the seven-furlong, $1 million Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Keeneland.
“Absolutely,” he said about running in the Filly and Mare Sprint. “I’m looking forward to staying at the seven-eighths distance and maybe getting one more start in before the Breeders’ Cup.”