SARATOGA SPRINGS – As the shadows leaned away from the vacant Saratoga grandstand, Tiz the Law marched forward as horse racing’s next big thing.
The son of Constitution dueled with West Coast shipper Uncle Chuck in the early going, and then shook off the Bob Baffert-trained colt opening up against the rest of the field on his way to winning the 151st Travers Stakes.
The Post Time top selection continues to dominate the 3-year-old male division, this time by a margin of 5 1/2-lengths in front of small crowd of owners, officials and media at Saratoga Race Course.
As the Belmont Stakes winner rounded the turn heading back to the winner’s circle after the race echoes from a small group of fans at the fence surrounding the track could be heard recognizing the terrific colt’s performance.
It was a far cry from the 50,000 that usually grace North America’s oldest sporting venue, but the locals did their best to let the New York-bred know he was special.
The Barclay Tagg conditioned colt completed the mile-and-a-quarter trip in 2:00.85 and went off as the 1-2 favorite. The winner paid $3 for the win, $2.40 for place and $2.10 to show. Second-place finisher Caracaro paid $6.40 for second and $4 for third. He completed a $2 exacta of $14. Linda Rice-trained Max Player finished third and paid $3.70 to show and rounded out a $2 trifecta that paid $73.48. South Bend rounded out the superfecta.
The top four finishers received 100-40-20-10 Derby points respectively. The top 20 point leaders qualify for a gate in the Derby.
The chestnut colt collected $535,000 for the win, adding to his career earnings of $2,015,300 for the Sackatoga Stables partnership. It was redemption for the owners, specifically managing partner Jack Knowlton, whose Derby-Preakness winner Funny Cide was not able to run in the Travers 17 years ago.
In June, the New York-bred avenged Funny Cide’s loss in the Belmont, and on Saturday evening he added the Travers to his vengeance tour. He became the third New York-bred to win the Travers and now will point to the big one, the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs.
“It’s quite an accomplishment for our little stable of New York-breds, for Barclay Tagg training our New York-bred to win the biggest races in New York. We’re just thrilled to death,” said Knowlton.
In this bizarro world where the Travers Stakes became a key prep for the Kentucky Derby, any doubters of this horse were dismissed after witnessing Saturday’s performance. He handled the mile-and-a-quarter distance with ease and a time that was very legitimate.
Jockey Manny Franco reveled over his horse’s second gear after the race. “He gave me chills,” said Franco. “When I pushed the button, he just took off. He accelerated really hard.”
The second quarter mile was run in a speed 23:59 and he finished strong at 24:53 going the classic distance for the first time. The question that won’t linger heading into Louisville, that many of his competitors will face is that he can get the distance and some.
“Now I’m more confident than before the race [that he can go a mile-and-a-quarter,” said Franco. “I know now he can go the distance, but he still has to run the race.”
The mild-mannered Tagg delivered his usually one-word answers at the post-race presser and even admitted that he had some worries coming into the race. His colt dashed his conditioner’s concerns and will now point towards Louisville after getting a 10-day breather.
“You always have some doubt because so many different things can happen. That’s always in the back of your mind. A stumble out of the gate. Anything can happen, but I was very confident in the horse,” said Tagg.
It was the 82-year-old trainer’s first career win in the Travers.
Caracaro, the second-place finisher earned 40 Derby points and put himself into the Derby as he sits in 10th on the leaderboard with only two qualifying races remaining.
Jockey Javier Castellano was proud of the son of Uncle Mo, who went off at 11-1 and finished strong behind the winner to vault his colt into the Derby. “My horse is developing,” said Castellano. “My horse only had four races and finished second behind a really good horse today. I think he has some room to improve. Hopefully, we’ll hear more from him in the future.”
Castellano was short of calling Tiz the Law a super horse after the race, understanding his horse was clearly second best. “I was trying to get my horse closer to Tiz the Law at the quarter pole, and as I was getting closer to his side, he just disappeared. I think he’s a great horse,” said Castellano.
Max Player’s third-place finish put him at No. 9 on the Derby leaderboard and will join Tiz the Law and Caracaro in the Derby.
Tiz the Law’s next race will likely be his most difficult one, with a field that could be up to 20 horses. The mad cavalry charge to the clubhouse turn has doomed many a horse under the Twin Spires. In addition, more than one Derby favorite heading into the race was thwarted by an early collision or a bad post-position draw. I’m looking at you, Lookin at Lucky.
A win in the Derby in September would put him in position to become racing’s 14th Triple Crown winner and third in the last six years. The Preakness Stakes is scheduled for Oct. 3 at Pimlico and is run at 1 3/16-miles.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.