How lucky is Jack Knowlton? Lucky enough to have the even-money favorite, Tiz the Law, in the 151st running of the Travers Stakes on Saturday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and with no real pressure to win it.
In gambling parlance, Knowlton and his Sackatoga Stable have a free roll: whether his colt wins or loses the Travers, also known as the Midsummer Derby, Tiz the Law will remain the only horse with a chance to sweep the sport’s Holy Grail, the Triple Crown.
The coronavirus pandemic has reshuffled the seasons of every sport, but it truly upended thoroughbred racing. Instead of the Kentucky Derby serving as the first leg of the Triple Crown on the first Saturday in May, the Belmont Stakes did so for the first time in history on a Saturday in June.
After Tiz the Law rolled to an emphatic four-length victory at Belmont Park on Long Island, Knowlton took advantage of the scrambled calendar and chose an ambitious schedule for his colt, one that mirrored some of the sport’s greatest horses.
The Triple Crown champions Sir Barton (1919), Omaha (1935), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943) and Citation (1948) competed in races between the Preakness and the Belmont, typically the final two legs. All but Omaha were victorious.
“Why not?” asked Knowlton, the managing partner of Sackatoga Stable. “With the pandemic turning the Triple Crown upside down, and the fact that we haven’t been able to watch his last two victories in person, we have almost a month to get ready for Kentucky. It is worth a shot.”
Even better, Saratoga Race Course is Knowlton’s home track and the meet’s premier race means the world to him. In fact, he has suffered a broken heart at the hands of the Travers before.
Seventeen years ago, a gelding by the name of Funny Cide was scratched the day before the race. Funny Cide, the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, had made Knowlton and his partnership semifamous. Sackatoga Stable was born in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., when six old high school buddies sat on the front porch of the village’s former mayor, acknowledged they were approaching midlife crises and decided they needed to get in the horse business.
They added more partners and captured the imagination of sports fans by arriving at each Triple Crown race in an old yellow school bus and with coolers full of beer. But at the Belmont, Empire Maker upset Funny Cide, who finished third, and dashed their Triple Crown dreams.
The Travers was supposed to make them feel better. Instead, Funny Cide got sick and the stable’s trainer, Barclay Tagg, pulled him from the race.
“To tell you the truth, that was almost as disappointing as not sweeping the Triple Crown,” Knowlton said. “Small stables like ours don’t get a lot of chances.”
Home run horses are scarce, and Knowlton and his partners were grateful Funny Cide had walked into their shedrow.
They had paid $75,000 for him, a blue-plate special price that ended up paying off blue-blood dividends. Funny Cide won 11 races, earned more than $3.5 million in purses and etched his name in the history books as the first New York-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby.
Still, Knowlton did not deviate from his stable’s playbook — he buys only modestly bred New York horses and spreads the risk among a lot of partners who pay a small amount for shares. They have had some success, winning more than 50 races and campaigning nine horses that have won between $95,000 to $200,000.
Then, Tiz the Law came along.
Tagg, who also advises on what horses to buy, liked the yearling as soon as he saw him at the 2018 Fasig-Tipton New York-bred Yearling Sale. Like Funny Cide, he was the son of a first crop, or unproven sire, by the name of Constitution. His mother, Tizfiz, had won a Graded Stakes race at 1 ⅛ miles, suggesting class and stamina.
“We thought we’d get him for $100,000,” Knowlton said. “It’s a good thing we raised our hand one more time and got him at $110,000.”
Yes, it was very good for Knowlton and his 34 partners. All Tiz the Law has done is win five out of his six starts for purse earnings of nearly $1.5 million.
Even better, however, for them was that the colt’s stallion rights were sold in an eight-figure deal to Coolmore America’s Ashford Stud after his Belmont victory. Knowlton would not reveal the exact number, but he did acknowledge that Sackatoga will earn bonuses if Tiz the Law wins the Travers, the Derby, the Preakness and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which is scheduled for November.
Ashford Stud structured a bonus deal for the 2015 Triple Crown Champion American Pharoah that promised his owner, Ahmed Zayat, $3 million for winning the Kentucky Derby, $2 million each for victories in the Preakness, Belmont, Travers Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic as well as a $2 million bonus for being named 3-year-old male champion.
Do the math: A similar deal would mean a potential $13 million for Sackatoga to roll up this year.
“I drew a line in the sand — no one was going to own his racing rights other than us and we intended to run him throughout his 4-year-old year,” Knowlton said.
Lucky or not, Knowlton and his partners are taking a free roll with found money.