Not exactly déjà vu heading into Holy Bull
Tiz the Law brings Sackatoga back to KY Derby trail, but with far more hype than 2003 winner Funny Cide
Story by Mike Kane
Video of Jack Knowlton interview (text includes time marks to identify different subjects)
Sackatoga Stable returns to the Grade 3 Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park on Saturday with Tiz the Law, a horse that has attracted far more attention than the partnership’s first runner, a chestnut gelding named Funny Cide.
Some three months after he finished a tough-trip fifth in the 2003 Holy Bull, Funny Cide delivered career-making performances in May, victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. That exciting rags-to-riches run toward a Triple Crown – which put tiny Sackatoga Stable, its managing partner Jack Knowlton and trainer Barclay Tagg in the spotlight – ended with a third-place finish in the Belmont Stakes.
Seventeen years later, Knowlton and Sackatoga Stable are back in the $250,000 Holy Bull with another New York-bred trained by Tagg and his longtime partner Robin Smullen. While Funny Cide was perfect in his three starts, all against New York-breds, prior to the 1 1/16th miles Holy Bull, Tiz the Law is once-beaten but he arrives with an important Grade 1 victory in the Champagne Stakes in October at Belmont Park on his resume. The Holy Bull, a Kentucky Derby qualifying race that attracted a field of seven 3-year-olds, will be Tiz the Law’s first start since he finished third as the 3-5 favorite in the Kentucky Jockey Club over a sloppy sealed track at Churchill Downs on November 30.
Knowlton, the upbeat Saratoga Springs, N.Y. businessman, who founded Sackatoga Stable in 1995 with some lifelong pals, has the perspective to appreciate the different reception Tiz the Law has been afforded. This isn’t a déjà vu situation.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Knowlton said. “After he won the Champagne, the whole world kind of exploded. Here’s a horse that is not only considered a nice horse, but if he had won the Kentucky Jockey Club I think he would have had a real good shot at winning the Eclipse Award.
“That was a tough spot with the track being what it was and caught down inside. But a lot of people think like I do and draw a line through this race. Even after he lost that race he was the favorite in the first Churchill Downs futures pool and he’s the lowest odds at William Hill in Vegas for the Derby. There is a little more pressure than in the days of Funny Cide, who came in under the radar screen.”
Once Tiz the Law showed his ability with an impressive maiden victory at Saratoga and the Champagne, Tagg and Knowlton began to think about aiming for the 2020 Triple Crown series.
“We definitely had this race on our radar screen,” Knowlton said. “It was a nice break for him after the race in Kentucky. It came at a good time and is close to our (winter) home base up in Palm Meadows. It’s a historic race for us. Funny Cide ran in it. We said, ‘Let’s go do it.’”
Funny Cide was the 5-1 third choice under Hall of Fame jockey Jose Santos in the wagering for the Holy Bull. He drew a post far from the rail and the task quickly became more difficult when he hit the gate.
“He had the 13 post and Jerry Bailey had a horse in the 12,” Knowlton said, referring to the now-retired Hall of Fame jockey and current NBC racing analyst. “At the break he pushed us about four more paths out. He gutted out a fifth place which some trip handicappers that are pretty astute thought was a heckuva effort.”
Knowlton acknowledged that he and his partners were discouraged but decided they should give Funny Cide another chance to prove he belonged on the Triple Crown trail.
“Well, that was the first race that he didn’t win. It was the first race in open company. The first race around two turns. So it was a lot of firsts for him,” Knowlton said. “He put in a pretty gutsy effort given the post position and what happened to him at the beginning of the race. It encouraged us enough to send him over to Fair Grounds and run him in the Louisiana Derby as the next race. He did pretty well there. He ran third but he ended up getting moved up to second. A pretty nice horse named Peace Rules won that race.”
Even before Tiz the Law won his debut, he had shown his connections that he might be an above-average athlete.
“When he showed his promise, really, is when we saw him working at Saratoga,” Knowlton said. “Not only did he work fast, but the way he galloped out. They couldn’t even pull him up. He just wanted to keep going. We were very confident going into his first race, his maiden, that he would do very well. And it ended up that we ran against a horse where those people thought that their horse was going to do real well. We beat him in that race pretty easily but he’s gone on to win two or three stakes since then. It showed some verification that that was a pretty important race.”
A minor leg issue that was found following Tiz the Law’s first race affected his training and forced Tagg and Knowlton to change their plans to stay in New York-bred company and try the Champagne.
“Barclay and I spent a lot of time pontificating on whether or not you want to go from a maiden New York-bred race to a Grade 1,” Knowlton said. “He had shins after that, and if he hadn’t we probably would have gone the same route that we went with Funny Cide, gone to the Bertram Bongard and then the mile in the Sleepy Hollow. But sometimes things work out for the best. We ended up making the decision, he was training so well, let’s give him a shot in a Grade 1. We thought we had a nice horse going in, but the way he won it I would have to admit was really kind of shocking.”
Sackatoga’s $110,000 yearling purchase earned $275,000 in the Champagne and moved right onto the list of top prospects for the Triple Crown series. Rather than taking Tiz the Law to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile less than a month after the Champagne, the race at Churchill Downs was selected as his finale for his 2-year-old season.
During the Funny Cide run, Sackatoga Stable consisted of nine partners. The core group was Knowlton and four of his buddies from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., who had formed the original stable in 1995. In 2006, Knowlton and Saratoga Springs businessman Ed Mitzen established Sackatoga Stable LLC as a public partnership company that operates a small stable of four runners with Tagg. Tiz the Law is the first one to take Sackatoga back into top-level open company races.
“We exclusively buy New York-breds and you’re always hoping that you’re going to get horses that can run in the New York stakes,” Knowlton said. “We’ve had a handful of those. You just hope that maybe something good is going to happen, but you never hope that something this good was going to happen.”
Tagg and Smullen serve as the stable’s bloodstock agents and pointed Knowlton to Tiz the Law’s page in the sales catalogue. They were interested in buying a colt from the first crop of Constitution, a two-time Grade 1-winning son of Tapit, out of Tizfiz, a Grade 2-winning mare by Hall of Famer Tiznow.
Sackatoga Stable started working with Tagg and Smullen more than 20 years ago, and Knowlton said it remains a comfortable and successful relationship.
“People ask me, ‘Are you still with Barclay? Why is that?’ I say, ‘Well, if you have a trainer that you win the Kentucky Derby with, why would you think of going anywhere else?’” he said, chuckling. “Beyond that, I am around them a lot, both around Saratoga, somewhat at Belmont and down here. I know what good horse people they are. You talk to anybody and Barclay is highly respected. Every time you see their horses they look great. They get all the care that you could expect and even more.”
Knowlton is thoroughly enjoying the run-up to another Triple Crown, comparing and contrasting what happened with Funny Cide and what might be with Tiz the Law.
“Until he won the Derby – other than folks up around Saratoga and in the Capital District – nobody paid much attention to him,” Knowlton said. “Here, after he wins the Champagne it turns out that he is the Derby favorite at this point, which is a little bit daunting to say the least. Everybody is looking at every move you make.
“The other thing that is very, very different is social media. We had no social media back then. Now, every second somebody is sounding off on what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and whether it is right or wrong. That’s a big difference.
“We’ve been through it, Barclay has been through it. He knows what to do with a good horse. If all goes well, the biggest issue is keeping him healthy and sound.”
Award-winning writer Mike Kane has been covering racing on a regular basis for print, radio, television and on-line properties since 1980. Kane, who cut his teeth writing about racing at Saratoga Race Course for Schenectady’s Daily Gazette, covered Funny Cide’s career, including writing a diary with owner Jack Knowlton throughout the 2003 Triple Crown.