Note: One of a series of profiles on contenders for the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes on June 20. Updates will be provided after morning-line odds and post positions are set on Wednesday, June 17.
By Jenny Kellner
A shade over 17 years ago, Barclay Tagg, fresh from his turn as one of a handful of trainers to have won the Kentucky Derby in his first attempt — with a New York-bred, no less — returned from Louisville to find he’d been evicted from his basement apartment near Belmont Park.
Tagg, whose sense of humor borders on the arid, could only laugh at the peculiar turn of events, which, in retrospect, parlayed right into the strange and wonderful saga of Funny Cide, whose colorful band of owners had eschewed the traditional form of transportation to a Triple Crown event and arrived at Churchill Downs in a rented yellow school bus.
You can’t make this up.
The gelded and headstrong Funny Cide went on to Baltimore to win the Preakness for Tagg and Sackatoga Stables, but faltered to finish third in the 2003 Belmont Stakes behind Empire Maker.
In the intervening years, Tagg would enter only one other runner – Charles Fipke’s Tale of Ekati, who finished sixth in 2008 – in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes. After Funny Cide’s retirement, Sackatoga Stables more or less disappeared from view.
But, kind of like Brood IX of the periodical 17-year cicadas, who last burst forth in Tagg’s old steeplechase stomping grounds in Virginia in (you guessed it) 2003, Sackatoga Stables and Tagg have re-emerged on this year’s strange and as-yet-to-be wonderful Triple Crown series with another New York-bred, Tiz the Law.
With the 152nd Belmont shifted from its customary place as the final and longest (and oldest) leg of racing’s Triple Crown, Tiz the Law is the presumptive favorite to win this’s COVID-19 edition, set as the first and shortest leg of the series, at 1 1/8 miles on June 20 at Belmont. (The Derby will be run on Sept. 5 with the Preakness set for Oct. 3)
Unlike 2003, when 101,864 showed up to cheer on Funny Cide, no fans will be in attendance when the multiple Grade 1 winner (2019 Champagne, 2020 Florida Derby) takes on an a less than stellar field with the absence of unbeaten Nadal, Charlatan and Maxfield.
On Sunday, June 14 (Flag Day, in case you forgot), the son of Constitution (get it?) turned in his final prep for the Belmont, cruising a half-mile in 50.42 under jockey Manny Franco in 1:03.12, a purely maintenance move following last week’s flashy work in 1:00.53.
The work was in sharp contrast to Funny Cide’s final move, when he zipped 5 furlongs in 57.42 five days before the race.
“Funny Cide was the last (horse) in the world I was thinking about (today),” Tagg said with a laugh. “That thing has come back in my mind many times. I try not to think of that five-eighths.”
Belmont Stakes Probable: Tiz the Law
Trainer: Barclay Tagg
Jockey: Manny Franco
Owners: Sackatoga Stable (Jack Knowlton, operating manager)
Career record: 5-4-0-1
Career earnings: $945,300
Pedigree: Constitution—Tizfiz, by Tiznow
Running style: Stalker
“Clear favorite would be 5-for-5 if not for bad trip in slop last fall; worked great in Florida, has won at Belmont; very hard to go against, especially with Maxfield skipping race.’’ — Ed McNamara
“Crushed the field impressively to win the Florida Derby in his last start, and also owns a win on this track in last fall’s Champagne. Seems like the head-and-shoulders leader of the 3-year-old division, especially with top horses Charlatan, Nadal, and Maxfield sidelined. Huge favorite here.” … Noel Michaels.
Notes: Manny Franco has ridden in more than 9,400 races during his career that began in 2013, and Tiz the Law will be his first Belmont Stakes … For future reference, Franco has ridden in the Kentucky Derby twice before, 17th aboard Tencendar in 2015, and 18th aboard Spinoff in 2019 … Preakness? 0-for-0 … Tagg has been a thoroughbred trainer since 1972, saddling more than 9,800 starters and winning more than 1,580 races (more than $61.6 million in earnings) … A possible plan for Tiz the Law, depending on what happens in the Belmont, could be the Travers at Saratoga in August (a firm date has not yet been announced), followed by the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5 and the Preakness on Oct. 3.