Tagg expands on Tiz The Law's long Derby journey

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Shown being schooled in June by trainer Barclay Tagg (left), assistant Liz Smullen (center) and barn foreman Juan Barajas Saldana, Tiz The Law is favored to win Saturday’s Travers Stakes. (NYRA photo)

Las Vegas


In a year of asterisks, Tiz The Law could be the exception to the rule. There will be no sudden sprint to the trophy for this would-be champion. Instead he must navigate the pitfalls of an extended journey.


“It’s a long program,” his trainer Barclay Tagg said this week. “There was a time space in the middle where we couldn’t do anything with him. It’s difficult. It’s on your mind all day and all night every day.”


Then Tagg paused and chuckled and said, “You don’t want to make any mistakes if you can help it.”


The obvious next line is that he has not taken a bad turn on this journey. That Tiz The Law is 3-for-3 this year with no horse finishing within three lengths of him. That he won the Belmont Stakes in such dominant fashion that it is no wonder he is a heavy favorite for Saturday’s $1 million Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga. That he is already the horse – make that The Horse – going into next month’s Kentucky Derby.


But anyone who has seen or heard Barclay Tagg in pre- or post-race interviews stopped two paragraphs ago at the world “chuckled.” Really? “Chuckled”? Is this really the man who replies to a simple question with a simple answer? Who chooses to politely parse the superfluous from his conversation.


Plot spoiler. The telephone interview that Tagg did Monday for this week’s Ron Flatter Racing Pod was expansive and insightful and relaxed. There was plenty of talk. And it was not small.


It started where many left off with Tagg 17 years ago, when he trained Funny Cide to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness – only to come up short of the Triple Crown with a third-place finish in the Belmont. Does now feel a lot like 2003?


“You could say so,” he said. “But we do the same thing every all day every day, seven days a week.” Then with that avuncular laugh he said, “It’s exciting and nice to have a really good horse, but I don’t sit around thinking this is just like the Funny Cide years.”


The tenor of the interview was set for the realization that there really are common denominators between then and now. Especially Jack Knowlton, the lead owner of Sackatoga Stable for whom Tagg has worked for so much of his career.


“Jack is the greatest guy you could ever train for,” Tagg said. “He lets you do your thing. He has a way of attracting nice people. They’re fun, and they’re nice, and they’re pleasant, and they’re understanding. And Jack has a great way of keeping between them and us so we can get our job done. It was the same way with Funny Cide.”


It continues with a jockey who is on the rise. Where eventual Hall of Famer José Santos was already at the top of his game in 2003, Manny Franco is on a career arc that seems headed in that direction.


“He’s a sharp kid,” Tagg said. “He’s a very good rider. He’s got Ángel Cordero to tutor him.”


Therein lies a source of familiarity. Tagg, 82, and Cordero, 77, the Hall of Fame jockey who is Franco’s agent, enjoy a friendship that goes back more than a half-century. There is clearly a trust there that allows the two contemporaries to bridge any generation gap that might naturally occur with a talented 25-year-old millennial like Franco.


“I can call up Ángel and ask him about things,” Tagg said. “He could talk to the kid about it, too, and it’s worked out very well.”


(Confession: I purposely left out a story that Tagg told of his earliest encounters with Cordero. Admittedly, this is raw click bait for the podcast that includes that yarn. Besides, it sounds better coming from Tagg.)


Ultimately, though, this gets back to the horse, the Constitution colt that Tagg and his longtime assistant/life partner Robin Smullen spotted for Knowlton at the Fasig-Tipton New York-bred yearling sale two summers ago at Saratoga. The $110,000 price tag for Tiz The Law was a bargain compared with the $1.48 million that he has earned so far.


“He has a nice bone and everything was put together the way we like it,” Tagg said. “He had a great page in the book. It’s the kind of page I look for. Everything just kind of fell into place for him. He’s a real nice horse.”


Now Tiz The Law is the consensus favorite for the Derby – and consensus is an understatement. The best price to be found for him is 5-2 in the futures at Circa Sports. In Europe he is no better than 7-5. If he wins the Travers on Saturday, those odds will look like huge overlays compared with what he will be at post time Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs.


Think about it. Has a horse ever won a $1 million race at the Derby distance of 1¼ miles less than a month before running for the roses?


“I’ve never had any qualms about distance with him,” Tagg said. “I could be dead wrong, but I don’t think I am. I’ve never seen him get tired. I’ve never seen him get out of breath. He’ll go out there and work five-eighths of a mile at a good clip. When he pulls up he takes a couple of deep breaths, and that’s all there is to it. So I don’t see him having a trouble going a mile-and-a-quarter.”


Then just as relaxed as his colt, Tagg laughed again and said, “So now he’s got two of them in a row.”


Where Tagg has patiently massaged Tiz The Law along a trail that was prolonged from four months to eight, five-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert brings in one of his patented late bloomers to try and steal the Travers. He did it four years ago with Arrogate. Now he tries with 2-for-2 Uncle Chuck.


“The ground he covers reminds me of Arrogate,” Baffert told reporters this week. “We let him grow into himself like Arrogate. His last work was his most professional work. He had to work like that to put him on the plane. I saw Tiz The Law’s work, though, and it was also great. It’s going to be a good race.”


“Baffert is awfully successful,” Tagg said. “You know the horse is fresh, and he’s ready to go. He’ll be a threat for sure. I’ll look at all the others in case there’s some kind of strategy I have to use, but I don’t like to change things too much. (Tiz The Law) has his own style and his own way of doing things, and it’s worked out well. We’ll just try to follow that pattern.”


That means stalking the pace, which may well be set by the bigger Uncle Chuck if not by stakes-winning long shot Shivaree. The top two from the Peter Pan – Country Grammer and Caracaro – and third-place Belmont finisher Max Player will try to loom late. But bettors are likely to play this like it is a two-horse race.


If Tiz The Law emerges again as a winner, that will keep alive the possibility of sweeping the Belmont, Travers, Derby, Preakness and Breeders’ Cup Classic in less than five months – a veritable Quintuple Crown.


Tagg’s voice warmed to that idea with the same comfortable tone that he wore through the whole interview. And really, there was not much for him to say after that.


“I know it would be amazing. It’d be pretty amazing. Pretty amazing. All we can do is keep at it.”


Racing notes and opinions


I wrote last week that the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series lacked urgency. In short I said that Midnight Bisou would follow a precedent if she were to leave the Distaff division to be entered into the Classic without setting foot in one of the qualifying races in that division. I further wrote that “a panel of experts” has routinely endorsed this sort of thing. Longtime Breeders’ Cup spokesman Jim Gluckson responded with some “clarifications and corrections.” He said that “the Breeders’ Cup Racing Directors/Secretaries Panel is convened only for races which are oversubscribed.” In the case of an overflow Classic, for instance, Gluckson said “the first seven horses are placed into the main body of the field as follows: the number of Breeders’ Cup Challenge race winners combined with the number of horses that have earned the most points in North American Graded Stakes races throughout the year. Then the panel selects the remaining seven horses to arrive at 14. The panel then ranks the remaining horses not selected into the body of the field in a preference order.” In other words, if the Classic does not fill this year, Midnight Bisou could walk right in. “Even if the race is oversubscribed,” Gluckson said, “she could still get in automatically based on the number of North American Graded stakes points she earns through Oct. 25.” Gluckson further rebutted my jape at the “panel of experts” by listing them. The voting members include racing secretaries and executives Kevin Greely of Indiana Grand, Ben Huffman of Churchill Downs and Keeneland, David Jerkens of Del Mar, Steve Lym of Santa Anita and Martin Panza of the New York Racing Association. They also include handicappers Dominic Gardiner-Hill of the British Horseracing Authority, Eric Le Guen of France Galop and Garry O’Gorman of Irish Horseracing. Finally, Gluckson pointed out that Roaring Lion earned his place in the 2018 Classic with the highest rating of any candidate on any surface, that Zenyatta got into the 2009 and 2010 Classic based on her points in graded stakes and that there has not been a Breeders’ Cup Challenge race in Australia since 2018.


Oh, yes. There is another Derby prep this weekend. Blue Grass winner Art Collector (4-5) will be heavily favored to win Sunday’s $200,000 Ellis Park Derby in western Kentucky. He could become the consensus second choice in futures behind the Travers winner, presuming it is either Tiz The Law or Uncle Chuck. What happens if Art Collector wins by, say, six or more lengths, and Uncle Chuck noses out Tiz The Law? It seems safe to say that all three horses could be in the 3-1 to 4-1 range for the Derby.


My picks for the Derby preps: Tiz The Law, Uncle Chuck and the closer South Bend in exacta and trifecta boxes for the Travers. Art Collector cold over Dean Martini (10-1) and Necker Island (15-1) in exacta bets on the Ellis Park Derby.


Add Ellis Park Derby: The race will start after Sunday’s 6 p.m. EDT close of the final pari-mutuel Kentucky Derby Future Wager conducted by Churchill Downs. There are two ways of looking at this. It may create more value for Art Collector if he wins this weekend. Or it gives bettors an uneven and unfair final impression of the Derby field. Then there is the view here in Nevada. That it is far better to have access to the round-the-clock, fixed-odds futures offered by Circa Sports and William Hill.


Not that I have any influence, but I still wish that I had thought of this at least four months ago. Why didn’t Churchill Downs offer bettors who poured money into the first three KDFWs a credit to used on any of the last four pools? It might have been a livable compromise for players who were upset that they were not offered refunds from early pools when the race was postponed from May to September. It also would have allowed Churchill Downs to hold onto the cash that had been wagered. Alas, it is too late now.


During a Churchill Downs horsemen’s teleconference Monday, Baffert made an important point reacting to the track’s order that Derby week jockeys be in Kentucky by Aug. 24. It was imposed to make riders available for at least two coronavirus tests. “Wouldn’t you think it would be better to have these jockeys come in as late as possible? The longer you have them there, there’s the chance of them getting (the coronavirus) during the week.” Since the jockeys will not be quarantined after their arrival, Baffert is right. It is not as if they will wear ankle monitors to keep them from wandering across the river to Indiana to have a roll of the dice at Caesars or pick up some takeout from Cluckers. This seems less about safety – and more about the illusion of safety.


Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On the current episode, Tiz The Law’s trainer Barclay Tagg, New York Racing Association TV analyst Andy Serling and South Point’s Chris Andrews preview this weekend’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga. The RFRP is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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