Belmont winner Tiz The Law is favorite at a most unusual Kentucky Derby

Exercise rider Heather Smullen takes Kentucky Derby entry Tiz The Law out for a workout at Churchill Downs on Sept. 2
Exercise rider Heather Smullen takes Kentucky Derby entry Tiz The Law out for a workout at Churchill Downs on Sept. 2 in Louisville, Ky.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

Jack Knowlton and bunch of his school buddies decided to have some fun and buy a race horse. There were two rules — it had to be a New York bred, and it had to be affordable. So, in 2001, they plunked down $22,000 and bought a yearling at the Fasig-Tipton New York sale.

Two years later they won the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness with a gelding named Funny Cide.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Until it happened again.

Knowlton and his now 35 partners in Sackatoga Stable put down $110,000 and bought another yearling at the same sale in 2018. There was only one other person left from the original partnership, and no one in the current group paid more than $7,500, with some buying partial shares.


This colt’s name is Tiz The Law, and he’s the 3-5 favorite in Saturday’s 146th Kentucky Derby.

There is little of the mystery that goes into the traditional first Saturday in May race. Tiz The Law already has won the Belmont Stakes, the normal third leg of the Triple Crown but this year run at 1 1/8 miles instead of the usual 1½ miles. He also has run 1¼ miles, something horses never do before the Kentucky Derby, when he won the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

The Kentucky Derby’s new date coupled with no fans at Churchill Downs has left the race with a strange feeling, but Bob Baffert could still win.

Sept. 3, 2020

He is also the first horse to have morning-line odds less than even money since Easy Goer was the favorite in 1989. Easy Goer lost to Sunday Silence.

“It’s a little daunting being a 3-5 morning line favorite in the Kentucky Derby, but I think he’s earned it,” said Knowlton, the operating partner in Sackatoga Stable. “You talk about the Triple Crown, should he go on and win these next two races [Kentucky Derby and Preakness]. I look at it as the quadruple crown, and only one horse has done that and it was Whirlaway [in 1941].”

Winning Saturday’s race is less daunting than it was earlier this year. Nadal, undefeated and dominating in four races, was injured and retired. Maxfield, another undefeated colt, also was injured and taken off the Derby trail. Just this week, highly regarded Art Collector suffered a minor foot injury and withdrew. Since the post-position draw Tuesday, two other horses, King Guillermo and Finnick the Fierce, also scratched, leaving a field of 16, making it the smallest since 2003.


Honor A.P. (5-1), Authentic (8-1) and Thousand Words (15-1) are considered the best of what’s left. All three are based in Southern California.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the 17 years since Funny Cide’s Kentucky Derby win is the trainer, 82-year-old Barclay Tagg.

“If a guy wins the Kentucky Derby for you, why would you think about going somewhere else?” Knowlton said.

Robin Smullen on Tiz the Law, left, is led around the track by trainer Barclay Tagg in a workout at Belmont Park.
Robin Smullen on Tiz the Law, left, is led around the track by trainer Barclay Tagg during a workout at Belmont Park in June.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

It’s not as if Sackatoga Stable — named for a combination of the original investors’ home of Sackets Harbor, N.Y., and Saratoga Springs — has had great success buying a few horses in each of the intervening 17 years. In fact, Funny Cide and Tiz The Law are the only two graded stakes winners for Sackatoga.

Tagg explains why his partnership with Knowlton has lasted so long in the simplest of terms.

“He hasn’t fired me yet,” Tagg said.

Tagg’s job has been to keep Tiz The Law sharp during this long time between the scheduled date and the adjusted date.

“The whole plan for the year had pretty much been determined, run in the Holy Bull, skip the Fountain of Youth and run in the Florida Derby,” Knowlton said. “Five weeks later we had time to run in the Kentucky Derby. But the world changed, and we had to change with it.

“Some people are concerned it’s only four weeks between the Travers and Kentucky Derby this year. If you look at his two works at Saratoga, then those questions are answered. He’s just as sharp as he’s ever been.”

Besides the ownership and trainer, there are few similarities between Funny Cide and Tiz The Law.

“This horse is completely different,” Tagg said. “He’s a smaller chunkier type. Funny Cide was a real handful. If he heard a camera click, he’d turn around to look at you. Funny Cide was really high strung. This horse is a little more sensible.”

Another difference is that Funny Cide was a gelding and Tiz The Law still has all his parts, making him worth tens of millions more in the breeding shed. Ashford Stud has bought the breeding rights, but the colt won’t be available until after his 4-year-old racing season next year, barring injury.

One thing that has remained the same, at least in theory, is that the racing syndicate was really all about having fun.

“Nobody got into this with the expectation to make any money,” Knowlton said. “And this horse has won $2 million. In a normal year we would have had a big party at the Florida Derby, the Belmont, the Travers, but we haven’t been able to do that.”

Still, Knowlton plans to use a big yellow school bus to bring in his partners to the track, which became their signature in the Funny Cide year. Even though there are no fans, Churchill Downs does allow owners ... to a degree.

“Hopefully I can get a few more tickets for all the people who want to come,” Knowlton said. “We’ll probably have to get two buses for social distancing. You can’t have people sitting next to each other on the bus.”

If all goes to plan, Knowlton’s biggest decision is who gets to go to the winner’s circle.

Cherwa reported from Orlando, Fla.