Life is strange these days. We wear face masks, stand six feet apart, and have reluctantly become experts at video conferencing into meetings. Sports are trying to come back in stutter-steps. So it was kind of nice, if even normal, to watch the racehorse Tiz the Law turn in a transcendent performance in the 152nd running of the Belmont Stakes.
The race, traditionally the last leg of the Triple Crown, instead kicked off the series for the first time in history on Saturday. It marked the return of big-time sports to New York, but on a smaller scale allowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Even better, Tiz the Law was bred in New York and is owned, trained and ridden by New Yorkers. Does Sackatoga Stable sound familiar? How about Barclay Tagg?
They should — back in 2003 another New York-bred by the name of Funny Cide won the Derby and the Preakness before having a Triple Crown bid denied right here at this grand old racetrack on Long Island.
On Saturday, however, Belmont Park was not so grand.
Instead of 100,000 fans filling the grandstands, there was only a bare-bones staff of grooms, trainers and assistant starters — less than 100 in all, or just enough to get the horses and their jockeys through the day. All wore masks or bandannas and gloves all week, making the paddock look like a cross between a medical center and a waiting room for desperadoes.
There were no hot dogs or beer. No buffets in the dining room. And there were no betting windows open.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gave the traditional “Riders Up” call via a television screen. Sam “The Bugler” Grossman was deemed essential personnel and sounded the Call to Post. A scratchy recording of Frank Sinatra belting “New York, New York” accompanied the 10-horse field to the track.
Then, nothing but the sound of birds chirping. Lots of them, loudly.
Tagg was not complaining. He is 82 now, so much a creature of routine that he told the NBC television presenter to hurry up and get the trophy presentation underway. He had work to do.
As Tiz the Law pounded down the stretch like he was bouncing from one trampoline to another, Tagg understood how fortunate he was to have another shot at the Triple Crown.
“I’m just glad I lived long enough to get a horse like this,” said Tagg, who became the oldest trainer to win the Belmont.
He did so by entrusting a horse of a lifetime to 25-year-old Manny Franco, who would be riding in his first Belmont. More seasoned riders wanted the mount on Tiz the Law, but Tagg stayed with Franco.
On Saturday, Franco was grateful. And nervous.
“I can’t lie to you,” he said. “But I knew what I had underneath me. I’m in good hands with Barclay.”
Up in Saratoga Springs, the mecca of New York racing, Jack Knowlton, the managing partner of the stable, was at a party with about half of Tiz the Law’s 35 partners.
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 and acknowledged they were approaching midlife crises. Five of them were small businessmen and one a teacher, and their careers had been good to them. So they got into the horse business. Knowlton had landed in Saratoga Springs as a health care consultant in the early 1980s, hence the name.
The group, now with additional partners, 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. Unfortunately, Empire Maker upset their bid to sweep the series in the Belmont Stakes.
They do not spend a lot of money on horses and they spread the risk among partners. Tiz the Law cost $110,000 at auction.
“We buy New York-breds,” Knowlton said. “We give them to Barclay because he knows what to do with them.” The group has employed Tagg as their trainer for 25 years.
The Belmont had not been good to New York-breds in the past. The last one to win this race was Forester in 1882. Now, 138 years later, Tiz the Law graced the winner’s circle of the Big Apple’s biggest race.
It was the fifth victory in six starts for the son of Constitution, and the $535,000 first-place check pushed his career earnings past $1.4 million. He ran the mile-and-an-eighth distance in 1:46:53 and paid his backers $3.60 for a $2 bet.
But the Belmont was hardly the Test of the Champion that horse racing aficionados have come to know and love.
Instead of its grueling mile-and-a-half distance, the race was shortened to a mile and an eighth and the start was placed at the end of the turn on the backstretch, which meant horses and riders only had to navigate one turn.
It did not matter. New York was in the sporting spotlight once again and, for a few minutes at least, we got to see what we had missed.