While Tiz the Law, the favored horse for the rescheduled 2020 Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5, is a New York-bred horse, he has at least 10 direct connections to Pennsylvania, beginning with a trainer who has already been there.
Been there. Done that. Won.
Won the single most-watched, most bet on horse race.
Funny Cide won the Derby and then the Preakness at Pimlico, the first two legs of the 2003 Triple Crown. But the gelding lost the final leg at Belmont that year. The horse retired in 2007.
Gelded young due to an undescended testicle, that was the end of big earnings for Funny Cide and his race team – the same team behind Tiz the Law.
Tiz offers a chance for redemption
And so the Derby this time around offers a chance for redemption, something that could help racing’s long revenue slide.
With it, there’s another bite of the Triple Crown apple for trainer Barclay Tagg, assistant trainer Robin Smullen, and their longtime professional ally, Sackatoga Stables.
And also a tantalizing prospect of glory for his ownership shareholders, which include seven Pennsylvanians. There are 26 shares, including 18 full shares which cost $7,500. Eight are split shares, and all told there are 35 individuals involved in the ownership of “Tiz.”
Tiz was the decisive winner of the rescheduled and re-ordered Belmont Stakes which ran on June 20.
The horse’s trainer, Tagg, is an 82-year-old PA native known for taciturn methodical modesty.
Tiz the Law trainer ‘shy, guarded, abrasive and charming’
Tagg’s business biography reads:
Tagg defies easy explanation. He can be shy, guarded, abrasive and charming, all in the span of a few minutes.
The longtime trainer’s first brush with racing greatness is illustrative.
Squinting into the sun at the finish of the 2003 Derby, Tagg did not initially realize Funny Cide had just beaten 15 other horses at Churchill Downs in his first outing ever between the Twin Spires in Louisville, Kentucky.
Surveying the aftermath of the race and not seeing Funny Cide, Tagg wondered aloud, “Why hasn’t he come back?” BloodHorse reported in its 2003 post-Derby story.
Then someone pointed out Tagg’s horse, heading to the winner’s circle.
Of the win he didn’t see coming, Tagg simply said, “Nobody told me.”
Tiz trainer Barclay Tagg has PA roots
Tagg was born in Lancaster, a small city surrounded by the Amish farmland of Southcentral PA.
His family moved to Abington, a suburb north of Philadelphia. Tagg went to Penn State University and studied animal husbandry, graduating in 1961, a year which began with Dwight D. Eisenhower still the president.
“I was involved with show horses and hunters before I was in college. Then I got involved with racehorses in 1963, when I was managing a farm in Pennsylvania. I started riding jumpers in 1966, and five years later I started training horses near the end of 1971.”
His first winning thoroughbred flat race came in 1972 at the long-defunct Liberty Bell Park in Northeast Philly, replaced by an outlet mall.
Robin Smullen, assistant trainer of Tiz, grew up riding in PA
In 1996, Tagg met Robin Smullen, who grew up on a Chester County horse farm in PA’s hunt country. Now 57-years-old, she had competitively show jumped herself to a reserve champion showing by the age of eight, she explained in an e-mail. She had worked as an assistant steeplechase trainer in PA for a time.
Smullen (pictured right), began working for Tagg in 1997. She became his assistant trainer a year later. His training operation and home are in New York, near Belmont. Tagg and Smullen also train in Florida.
Somewhere along the way, the two became life companions.
“We went to dinner and she never left,” Tagg has said of Smullen, who was by his side for the Triple Crown runs with Funny Cide, his Derby horse which went on to also win the Preakness, but placed third in the Belmont Stakes.
Smullen also does the books for Tagg’s business.
Oh, and makes dinner, with a seeming preference for snow crab legs, tomato slices, and a quirky pairing with a glass of pinot noir.
Smullen’s niece also from PA horse country
Heather Smullen, 38, who grew up on her Aunt Robin’s parents’ Laurel Hill Farm on Scroggy Road in Oxford, PA, also assists in training as Tiz’s exercise rider.
Robin Smullen has referred to her niece as a “mini-me” version of herself.
Speaking of Heather, she told the Daily Racing Form earlier this month, “She feels the same things I feel, sometimes she feels more than what I feel and I feel a lot when I’m on a horse.”
Heather echoed the sentiment, “We grew up learning from the same people, the same stuff.”
Tiz offers a do-over for Tagg, Smullen and Sackatoga
With the Belmont already successfully behind Tiz the Law, the remaining two legs of the Triple Crown during this strange virus-disrupted year offer Tagg, Smullen, and Sackatoga something of a do-over.
The Belmont win this year for Tiz, combined with Funny Cide’s two winning legs 17 years before, made Tagg what is termed a “career Triple Crown” winner. That means winning all three legs, but not in the same year.
Jack Knowlton, the operating manager of Sackatoga since 1995, has relied on Tagg as his trainer for decades – Funny Cide was a Sackatoga horse.
And while Knowlton and his Saratoga Springs, NY operation generally know what they are looking for, Knowlton still depends on Tagg for final input.
Except when it came to Tiz the Law.
The final buy endorsement of Tiz came from Robin Smullen.
Smullen gave the buy nod to Tiz
Tagg has admitted he was concerned about how much white showed around Tiz’s eyes, which some horsemen believe makes for an edgy animal. And in Tagg’s case, a skeptical trainer.
Not so Smullen who told Tagg to go ahead and tell Sackatoga to spend the $110,000 at a Saratoga yearling sale.
“She was basically telling me, ‘Don’t worry about the eyes and bid on the horse,'” Tagg said in a recent interview with BloodHorse. “She was right, and that stuff about white eyes is probably an old wives’ tale.”
As an aside: the white sets Tiz off in images, whether he’s standing still or blazing down the homestretch. Here is a sampling of Tiz running in the Travers, courtesy of New York Racing Association track photographer, Adam Coglianese (third photo, credit Susie Raisher).
Tiz is six wins for seven races
The Bay horse has won all but one of his seven starts. Tiz got boxed in once on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs, coming in third in the Grade II Jockey Club Stakes as a two-year-old. He’s always been ridden by jockey Manny Franco, who has career earnings of nearly $85 million.
In June, Tiz became the first New York-bred horse to win the Belmont Stakes since 1882, and he did so by 3 3/4 lengths. The victory made Tagg the oldest trainer to win the race.
The horse followed up by handily winning the Travers by more than five lengths in early August at Saratoga. His earnings to date stand at $2,015,300.
Tiz favored for the Kentucky Derby
Tiz stands to make millions more, of course, should he win the Derby, and then the Preakness on Oct. 3.
Beyond that, Tiz is also expected at the $7 million Breeder’s Cup in November at Keeneland in Kentucky.
But unlike most major stake-winning horses, there are no plans to retire Tiz at the close of his third racing season. That’s because Knowlton loves racing, something Tiz’s shareholders understand and accept.
“I wanted to enjoy his racing,” Knowlton explained in an interview with PlayPennsylvania.
Knowlton, who shares Tagg’s modesty, named the three Derby entries likely to give Tiz a run for the money: Honor AP, A Thousand Words, and Art Collector.
But lowering his voice, Knowlton quickly added he doesn’t see Tiz losing the Derby. He said of the horse’s training times following the Travers runaway:
“Our numbers are very good and still good.”
Oddsmakers agree, steeply favoring Tiz in Kentucky Derby betting odds.
Breeding rights sold, but owners retain rights to winnings
Ashford Stud, the American outpost for Ireland-based Coolmore, will become the breeding home for Tiz when he is retired. The Kentucky farm is the home of notable stallions American Pharoh and Justify, both Triple Crown winners.
Justify’s stud fee is $150,000. This year, Justify’s breeding earnings have topped $2.4 million.
Coolmore America manager Dermot Ryan told BloodHorse after the rights purchase:
“Tiz the Law is the outstanding colt of his generation, so we are obviously delighted he’ll be coming here.”
Because of a non-disclosure agreement, Knowlton had little to say except to note how pleased he and the shareholders are with the rights sale, which allows them to continue racing and to retain Tiz’s fourth-year race winnings.
Owning a racehorse share usually means losing money
Before buying a small piece of Tiz, educational consultant Bill Evans was on something of a tear – a losing tear.
He had lost $127,000 over 13 years before Tiz, said Evans, 73, a Philadelphian who holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and operates Educational Enterprises.
He turned to investments in Sackatoga horses – he likes Knowlton’s personality and honesty – at the age of 60 when he felt financially secure.
Before Tiz, he had money in 17 Sackatoga horses, of which two were break-evens and two small winners.
He grew up going with family to Delaware Park, wagering even as a child. He’s good with Tiz running into his fourth year “for the good of racing.”
Hopeful, Evans bought Derby tickets last October. But virus restrictions have made details such as flights and spectators iffy. Evans has plane tickets. But he also knows the drive is 10 hours and 24 minutes, and he’ll do that if he has to make a change.
But just who will get in remains unsettled. As of now just 12 owners per group can attend for each horse.
Another PA shareholder has a betting tip about Tiz
Jim Webb, a former women’s collegiate basketball coach originally from Erie and now living in Washington near Pittsburgh went to Saratoga every race season, where he met Evans and formed a friendship over their love of racing.
Webb, 54, put money into Sackatoga horses because “[Knowlton] does it the right way. He loves the races.”
Still, Webb had only been on the plus side once before buying into Tiz. He nearly passed on buying into a horse of a lifetime.
He’s liking what he sees as Tiz preps. Great cruising speed. Out of the gate. Positioning himself well.
“His workouts have been spectacular,” said Webb, who is hoping to get in to see Tiz run the Derby. But Webb also knows crowd restrictions may help Tiz with the biggest race of his career.
How virus restrictions could work to Tiz’s advantage in Derby
“He does better without fans. He pays attention to noise in the stands. You’ll see his head turn right. He has his head in the stands.”
Webb added Robin Smullen, the assistant trainer, always wants the sound from Tiz’s admirers toned down.
This Derby run, it appears she will get her wish. Churchill just announced that “the Run for the Roses” will go off with no spectators in the stands.
Webb believes this will make Tiz only run faster.
Webb hopes a Triple Crown from Tiz may give racing a needed boost in a down year following virus disruptions, and a story to capture imaginations.