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For the owner and trainer of Kentucky Derby favorite, postponement is part of the game



“You have no choice,” stoic 82-year-old trainer Barclay Tagg said Thursday about being stoic. “You have no choice,” he repeated, having seen past Kentucky Derby hopefuls reach Louisville and then find themselves unable to run for maddening reasons, such as an entrapped epiglottis, which brought the Derby-week downer last year in the case of favored Omaha Beach.

Never in all the 146 Mays since the first Derby in 1875, however, had the people with a Derby favorite dealt with a zoonotic pandemic that trampled their careful plans and shooed their Derby down the calendar to Sept. 5, that date itself laced with wishing. If that sounds like bad luck, well, it’s not even close when set against age-old stoicism and, good lord, perspective.

“When I look at the economic fallout from this and I talk to the head of our U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Saratoga [N.Y.], and some restaurant owners . . .” said Jack Knowlton, whose Sackatoga Stable owns Tiz the Law, the Tagg trainee sitting No. 1 on Derby-contender charts. Knowlton broke off that sentence, then said, “Unless the world really turns upside down, we’re going to have the chance to race, so we’ve got something to look forward to. We’re still in the game. But people who own businesses everywhere — Saratoga lives and dies with the race meeting and the performing arts center. There’s going to be devastation. I can’t feel sorry for us, given the stuff going on around us,” with loss of life atop the list.

And in scrutinizing fate, Knowlton makes sure to study all its contours: “Yeah, I mean, it’s just that you have to look at it as we’re extraordinarily fortunate to have a horse like this. No, I never did think we’d have another horse who could be in the same sentence as Funny Cide.”

The once-in-a-lifetime nature of Tagg-trained 2003 Derby champion Funny Cide rings in one of those esoteric Derby stats: On the 145-strong list of Derby winners, that $75,000 purchase remains the lone New York-bred. He had relatable owners with non-lavish lives: Knowlton and high school friends from wee Sackets Harbor, N.Y. It’s the kind of story that comes along in a preposterous whoosh and then surely doesn’t bother to drop by again.

“Just trying to find New York-breds who can run comfortably,” Knowlton said of the philosophy. “That’s kind of our ceiling.”

Somehow, that ceiling got another remodeling after Knowlton purchased a yearling for $110,000 at the 2018 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga New York-bred sale. Tiz the Law joined the world March 19, 2017, at Twin Creeks Farm in Marcy, N.Y. By the Champagne Stakes of Oct. 5, 2019, here came a 2-year-old grandson of the great Tiznow blasting into the stretch enough to make his contestants look inert and his connections get busy.

They looked down the happy corridor to May 2, 2020, and hatched a plan: a thoughtful eight weeks between the Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 30 and the Holy Bull at Gulfstream near Miami on Feb. 1, then a thoughtful eight weeks between Feb. 1 and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream on March 28. After a third-place hiccup in Louisville and two wins in Florida, they had a Derby contender “absolutely primed, battle-tested, five races, two big victories, and he was ready to go a mile and a quarter on the first Saturday in May,” Knowlton said.

Hearing Knowlton describe that Holy Bull Stakes day of Feb. 1 could send one longing for old, underappreciated norms: For a horse with “32 or 33” owners, all owning parts while not distinguishing which parts, “We had probably 70, 80 people down at Gulfstream for the Holy Bull. It was just fabulous. We had four suites at Gulfstream and food and drink. It was just a big party. And I had everything set up for the Florida Derby.”

Then the world grew grim, and the restaurants closed March 17 in Florida, and Gulfstream forbade all owners with no exceptions, and for the Florida Derby of March 28, Knowlton faced an absurd choice gone normal: “At one point a few days before the race I considered attempting to see the upper-stretch part of the race from the Gulfstream parking lot because I thought that would be where Tiz would make his winning move. However, I decided against it because I wanted to hear all the commentary on the broadcast of the race.”

He watched on TV with his wife, a 12-year-old grandson and a racing partner, in a condo a mile from Gulfstream, blocks from the best fate yet miles from the worst fate going nowadays.

Now they’re slung into their particular corner of everyone’s province: the unknown.

While Knowlton has been to every Kentucky Derby since 2003 and has loved every Kentucky Derby since 2003, he said, “You talk about a lack of social distancing!” Where he would have spent this week by the barns in the Churchill Downs ecosystem — he’s one of the owners who loves to show up and see it all — he has distracted himself with the painstaking remaking of plans for the 70 or 80 guests from May to September, communicating with hotels fraught their own fresh complications.

The meticulous schedule has collapsed into the blank schedule. In what order might the Triple Crown run, if at all? What about that Saratoga fixture of August, the Travers?

“Trying to figure out a schedule, that’s the most challenging thing because there is nothing. It’s a blank slate,” Knowlton said.

Then there’s the matter of whether Tiz the Law’s advantages might wane or gain across four more months of growth on all the 3-year-olds even if the Derby does go Sept. 5.

“It could be an incredibly talented Derby field, probably more talented than we’ve seen,” Knowlton said. “There could even be horses we haven’t even seen yet or who just broke their maiden.”

All of it leaves Tagg, a horseman’s horseman, with that day-to-day-to-day task of maintaining freshness in Tiz the Law without causing staleness in Tiz the Law.

“I’ve done this every day for 50 years without stopping,” he said, “so I ought to know something about it.”

The 2020 Kentucky Derby front-runner gallops every morning in Florida, breezes one day a week, keeps to “simple routine varied to weather, varied to track conditions,” Tagg said.

He said, “You have to know your horse. We see these horses from 5 o’clock in the morning until 10 o’clock at night.”

He said, “You might not train them as hard as you would until you knew you had a goal.”

And when he said, “These are strange times, for everything,” he said so stoically.

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