If this year’s Kentucky Derby was being held on its traditional date on the first Saturday in May, Tiz the Law would be the overwhelming favorite heading into America’s most famous race.
But it’s not.
With the coronavirus pandemic causing racetrack closures in New York, Kentucky and California, this year’s Derby trail has taken unprecedented twists and turns. With the Derby postponed until Labor Day weekend, Tiz the Law now has over five months to find races to stay sharp in order to peak on Derby day.
There were no sounds of fans cheering the son of Constitution, only hooves pounding the Gulfstream Park dirt track as the 3-year-olds passed the finish line as the sun set on the spectator-less Hallandale Beach track.
His performance on Saturday was top notch, defeating eight other colts in the $750,000 Grade 1 Curlin Florida Derby, pulling away from his foes in deep stretch, finishing 4 1/4 lengths ahead of his nearest rival.
The win, worth 100 Kentucky Derby points, assured that Sackatoga Stable will return to Churchill Downs for the first time since Funny Cide won the Derby for the popular ownership group in 2003. It means trainer Barclay Tagg, who led Funny Cide through that magical Triple Crown trail with wins in the Derby and Preakness, will once again lead a horse to the gate before the Run for the Roses.
“All we know is that we’ve got a horse that’s very special, and it’s pretty exciting for us,” said Sackatoga owner Jack Knowlton. “Unfortunately, none of us could be there today. We were all watching it on TV from coast to coast.”
Post Time selection Tiz the Law completed the 9-furlong race in 1:50.00 and returned his backers $4.80 for the win, $3.60 to place and $2.80 to show. Longshot Shivaree (80-1) earned 40 points and paid $42 for his second-place finish and $13 to show. Fountain of Youth winner Ete Indien (74 points) stamped his ticket to Louisville with 20 points and paid $3.40 to show.
It was the fourth win in five starts for Tiz the Law, his lone loss coming over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs. The winner’s purse of $465,000 brought his career earnings total to $963,800. He now sits on top of the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 122 points.
With Ete Indien jockey Florent Geroux forced to move his colt quickly from his far outside post with the short run to the first turn, it opened the door for jockey Manny Franco. The New York-based jockey sat chilly in third drafting off the Fountain of Youth winner who sat just outside the front-running Shivaree. Franco stalked on the outside perfectly before letting his horse loose as he approached the half-mile pole.
Tagg applauded Franco’s execution of the plan he laid out before the race. “That’s what I asked him to do last time, and he got the hang of it because he did it perfectly this time,” said Tagg. “I just said 'I’d love you to be third in the two path' and he was like third in the three path, but that was fine, because the horse could handle it.”
While Franco made it look easy, he admitted it was his trust in the horse that provided him patience to wait for the right time.
“To tell you the truth, it wasn’t easy, but I had a lot of confidence in the horse,” said Franco. “He was traveling so well. As soon as he got to the half-mile pole, he was taking me the whole way and I was pleased with the way he was going.”
The next officially scheduled Kentucky Derby points race is on May 2 at Oaklawn Park, when the postponed Grade 1 Arkansas Derby will be contested. Races at Santa Anita (Santa Anita Derby), Aqueduct (Wood Memorial) and Keeneland (Blue Grass and Lexington) have all been canceled due to the pandemic.
On Friday, New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced that New York would seek the required federal approval to construct a temporary hospital at Aqueduct Racetrack to serve the borough of Queens with a 1,000-plus patient overflow facility.
It’s likely that more races will be added between May and August as Churchill Downs officials try and figure out how to navigate this disrupted Triple Crown season. Races such as the Haskell and Travers are likely candidates to be Derby points races as we head toward the first Saturday in September.
One thing is for sure, if Tiz the Law stays healthy, he’ll be a tough horse to knock off when they finally run for the roses.
Tagg knows it’s a long way to September and many obstacles could stand in his colt’s way.
“He’s still got to go out every day. He’s still got to be trained. He’s still got to be fed, so we’ll just keep taking care of him and try and keep him mostly fit and see what happens.”
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.