Breeders’ Cup Saturday: Heavyweights clash in the Classic

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The 37th Breeders’ Cup World Championships will close like it always does, with the $6 million Classic billed as one of the deepest and most competitive fields ever with Horse of the Year and divisional titles on the line.

The title chases are undeniable for 2020. Consider the matchups: For champion 3-year-old male, Tiz The Law versus Authentic. For older male, Tom’s d’Etat versus Improbable versus Maximum Security. If any of the other five win we could be in for more of a mess than the presidential vote count. By My Standards and Global Campaign might dispute that sentiment, but Tacitus, Title Ready and Higher Power can’t deny their collective 2-for-12 record this year.

The above-mentioned five account for wins in the Kentucky Derby, Belmont, Travers, Whitney, Woodward, Pacific Classic, Stephen Foster, Saudi Cup, Haskell and Awesome Again.

Like we said, it looks like one of the deepest and most competitive renewals of the 10-furlong test, even though we might be able to say that every year.

None of that really matters come 5:18 p.m. Saturday, when the field of 10 walk into the gate and bring the fan-free Breeders’ Cup to a close and hopefully settle a lot of debate.

Career Year. Tiz The Law ascends from debut winner to Midsummer Derby. Written for Aug. 8 Saratoga Special by Sean Clancy.

One year. Exactly one year. 

Barclay Tagg unveiled a first-time starter at Saratoga Aug. 8, 2019. A year later, that first-time starter goes postward as the overwhelming favorite in the Grade 1 Runhappy Travers at Saratoga Race Course. Tiz The Law and jockey Manny Franco break from post six in today’s Travers, the feature of a 12-race card. The $1 million stakes runs at 6:15 p.m. 

Partly because of pandemic and mostly because of performance, no horse has ever had a year in racing like Tiz The Law. 

Sackatoga Stable’s New York-bred son of Constitution won that Saratoga debut and the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park two months later. With an Eclipse Award on the line, Tiz The Law suffered his only blemish with a telephone-booth trip in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club to finish his juvenile season. He opened his 3-year-old season with a facile score in the Grade 3 Holy Bull and came right back to add the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Then things went awry, not with the once-beaten, free-running colt but with the world. 

“How would you like to have the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. . ?” Tagg asked back in March.

The Kentucky Derby was postponed until September, the Preakness was rescheduled for October, the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes went into hiding before reemerging as a shortened version of the first leg of the Triple Crown June 20. All the while, Tiz The Law kept breezing, 10 times in all, before clicking off the Belmont, like a Monday morning crossword. Now, he tries to add the Travers to a 365-day odyssey, in the middle of the most unorthodox attempt at a Triple Crown. 

What a year. 

Well, it actually began when Tagg and partner/assistant Robin Smullen fell for the colt at the Fasig-Tipton New York-bred sale 362 days before that debut. 

“I thought he was the best-looking New York-bred horse I’d ever seen,” said Tagg, trainer of one of the best New York-breds of all time in Funny Cide. “When you look at the big white face, you think Hereford, but I couldn’t fault him. I kept looking at him and looking at him and looking at him. He looks like a little chunk but when you really look at him, he stands over a lot of ground, he’s got great bone, great strength. Two white-rimmed eyes, that stops me, but you couldn’t turn down the rest of his body.”

Bred by Twin Creeks Farm and consigned by Sequel New York, Tiz The Law walked in as the 10th horse on the opening-night session. He walked out as Funny Cide’s heir apparent. 

“That’s our go-to sale given the budget we typically work with. We come up with a list, we had two fillies, so we said we’d really like to get a colt. From that list, there were 30, 40 horses that fit Barclay’s criteria,” Sackatoga’s Jack Knowlton said. “The biggest thing we’re looking for is on the dam side, dams who are stakes winners or the family are stakes winners. Once we see that, they go take a look and winnow it down and we typically end up with a handful, four, five, six horses. We put a price range on which we think is reasonable and affordable from my standpoint and then we do the sale, 110 was probably the last bid. I think we had him pegged at 100, fortunately we went that extra 10 thousand.”

Sent to Tony Everard, part of the Funny Cide team, Tiz The Law arrived with Tagg in the spring and never missed a beat before his unveiling in that New York-bred maiden going 6 ½ furlongs. 

A Tagg first-time starter at Saratoga on Aug. 8? 

Tiz The Law rekindled the adage to pay attention when old-school trainers play a new lesson. Long known for turf horses and older horses, Tagg proved yet again that when a horse is ready, the trainer is ready. Under Junior Alvarado, Tiz The Law showed what would become customary with a resolute cadence and a devastating finish to trounce seven state-bred foes.

Tiz The Law surprised Tagg. Not by his ability but by his readiness. 

“We didn’t expect him to run like he ran. We thought he was doing good, but we didn’t know he was that good. He never got out of a hack canter. Junior never had to ask him,” Tagg said 20 days after the win. “He got a little bit of a shin, he probably could have run in the Hopeful but there’s too many other things to look forward to, I put a blister on it, two days after he ran. There’s a New York-bred race on the 20th, we might make that.”

They didn’t make that. They made it way bigger. 

Tagg and Knowlton kicked around options and wound up landing on the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park Oct. 5. 

“Barclay and I went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, agonizing, can you really aim as high as the Grade 1 Champagne, the second best 2-year-old race in the country behind the Breeders’ Cup?” Knowlton said. “The more we talked about it and the more we looked at who was out there, finally, I said to Barclay, ‘The way he ran in Saratoga, the number he got, the way he did it, there doesn’t seem to be any distance limitations.’ We decided to take a shot. Sometimes you get lucky and we did.”

Alvarado had a commitment on Saratoga Special winner Green Light Go so Tagg pegged Franco, who has been aboard ever since. Tiz The Law stumbled and stuttered and pounced, skipping to a 4-length win. 

“Despite some anxious moments, the horse showed that he’s good enough to overcome adversity,” Knowlton said. 

Knowlton and Tagg decided to skip the Breeders’ Cup and aim at a two-turn race at Churchill Downs (remember the Derby was coming up in May). For Knowlton, it was an easy choice. 

“We wanted to get a race in Kentucky,” Knowlton said. “We didn’t want to go to the Breeders’ Cup, we didn’t do it with Funny Cide, we didn’t think that was the best path to get to where we both want to get, the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.” 

Franco rated Tiz The Law early and the blocks started building like a late level of Tetris. They wound up third, beaten three-quarters of a length. The Eclipse Award defaulted to Breeders’ Cup winner Storm The Court. 

“Unfortunately, it turned out to be a terrible race day, the track was a sea of slop and he got stuck down inside,” Knowlton said. “He got beat. He only got beat three-quarters of a length, we knew that wasn’t the horse we had. It’s one of those you just draw a line through and that’s what we did.”

From there, it’s been winning lines. 

Freshened and shipped to Florida, Tiz The Law returned with an easy win against six rivals in the Holy Bull at 1 1/16 miles. The plan was going to plan. 

“He’s very sensible with his training, he’ll go any speed you want to go or do anything you want him to do, he’s a cool cat,” Tagg said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a horse exactly like him. I’ve seen some good horses in my time, but he’s just kind of a phenomenon. He’s a good-looking horse but he doesn’t look like American Pharoah or one of those horses, he just looks like a horse and he just does whatever you ask him. He never takes a deep breath.”

Two months later, Tiz The Law secured his second Grade 1 stakes score in the 9-furlong Florida Derby. Deep breath? Barely an exhale as he rolled to a 4 1/4-length win over Shivaree and Ete Indien. 

“Just galloped around there, sat third and went on and won the race, came back and wouldn’t have taken a deep breath,” Tagg said. “It’s amazing, amazing. It’s all put in there some way and works out.”

The Florida Derby should have set him up perfectly for the Kentucky Derby. But, alas, this is 2020. Like everyone, Tagg adjusted to the shutdown, simply putting Tiz The Law on a once-a-week breeze schedule until a road map returned. The Belmont Stakes, shortened to 1 1/8 miles and rescheduled to June 20, became the first destination. 

“We didn’t know one day to the next what was going to happen, all in all, everything went fine. We just kept him on a schedule, some people said, ‘Why don’t you rest him?’ What are you going to rest him for? He’s a big, strong horse, he likes to do something,” Tagg said. “We did pretty much the same thing with Funny Cide, work him once a week and wait for the new race. They’re racehorses. You’ve got to do something with him, he was born and bred to breeze, one way or another. He absorbs it all, he’s very, very good, he likes to train, he likes everything he does.”

Tiz The Law knocked off the Belmont Stakes with his typical nonchalance, settling in third before cruising to a 3 3/4-length win over Dr Post and Max Player. In an uncertain time, Tiz The Law has become a certainty, winning his third stakes this year by a combined 11 lengths. 

And as for the Travers, it’s been paint by numbers so far. 

Tiz The Law returned to the work tab with an easy half-mile breeze in :50.06 at Belmont, 10 days after the Belmont Stakes. He followed that move with a 5-furlong jaunt in 1:01.10 a week later. Moved to Saratoga, Tiz The Law began to rev it up with a 5-furlong bullet in :59.63 July 18, another one in 1:00.48 July 25 and a third ripper in :59.94 Aug. 1. 

“He just seems to be coming into this race as good as a horse can go into it. His three works on the track here have all been tremendous. We have a nice post. We have every reason he will be a mile and a quarter horse. Barclay’s got all the confidence, he was wanting the Belmont to be a mile and a half so a mile and a quarter I’m not too concerned about,” Knowlton said. “He gets a chance to prove it in the Midsummer Derby before the real Derby. It’s weird. It is weird for sure. It’s a little daunting having an even-money favorite in the Travers, but I’d rather be there than 15-1. He’s just got to go out there and do it. All the signs are that he can and he will.”

And that would be a year of signs. 

Another Checkmark. Tiz The Law adds Saratoga’s signature race to growing resume. Written for Aug. 12 Saratoga Special by Tom Law.

The people gathered outside the fence near the corner of Nelson Avenue and Wright Street – the ones behind the translucent privacy screening erected before Opening Day by track and city officials to discourage congregating near a place where people have been doing just that for a century and a half – and let their appreciation flow.

Manny Franco heard it best, riding Tiz The Law back around the clubhouse turn after guiding the New York-bred colt to a flawless performance in the 151st Travers Stakes. The cheers, brief but audible, and the effort of the Constitution colt gave the soft-spoken rider something that’s been missing at the racetrack in this Covid-19 world. 

“He gave me chills,” Franco said after his first Travers win, officially by 5 ½ lengths in 2:00.95 for 10 furlongs. 

Tiz The Law, already the winner of the rescheduled Belmont Stakes and the Florida Derby this season, delivered the best performance of a seven-start career dating back exactly a year to his Saratoga maiden score Aug. 8, 2019. He did it that day before 25,404 fans who came out for a middle-of-the-meet Thursday card highlighted by the Saratoga Dew Stakes. 

Roughly 100, including trainer Barclay Tagg and members of his inner circle and several partners of Sackatoga Stable including Jack Knowlton, saw the Travers. Plus that handful outside the fence. 

Tagg said it didn’t matter much that there were no fans – it certainly helped Tiz The Law stay calm in the paddock and warm-up just like he did in the June 20 Belmont Stakes – and joked that “the purse is the same” when prodded by the press for the obligatory “What was it like without fans?” question. 

Knowlton looked at it another way. 

“I know Barclay and I will disagree on this; I wish there were 50,000 plus people here to see this performance live,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we’re able to run these races, we’re fortunate that NYRA was able to make accommodations for the owners to be here. It’s something I’ll never forget. It’s a highlight, probably after winning the Derby, which is the highlight of anybody that’s involved in this sport, this is easily number two.”

Tiz The Law will now head to Louisville to try and give Sackatoga and Tagg a second Kentucky Derby, following their first rags-to-riches run through the 2003 Triple Crown with Funny Cide. Franco will try and win his first in his third ride in the race – following a 17th aboard Tencendur in 2015 and an 18th on Spinoff last year. 

 Tiz The Law enhanced his status as the heavy favorite in Louisville Sept. 5.

After Tagg tacked up the bay colt using the famous four-time Kentucky Derby-winning saddle made for Franco’s agent Angel Cordero Jr. and used in recent big races by John Velazquez, Tagg made his way to the front of the clubhouse with longtime assistant and partner Robin Smullen and her niece and Tiz The Law’s frequent work rider Heather Smullen. 

Tagg didn’t settle on a spot to watch the race right away; he stopped near the Curlin Room for a bottle of water, was nearly knocked over by an owner and accepted a good luck post-time wish from Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez before finding a spot near a set of iron and concrete steps past the finish. 

He watched the break through his binoculars, alternating between live and on the infield monitor before pulling them down to see the field of seven flash past the finish the first time. 

Uncle Chuck, shipped in from California seeking Bob Baffert’s fourth Travers win, set the pace just ahead of longshot Shivaree with Tiz The Law and Franco just to their outside in third. Country Grammer and Caracaro, 1-2 in the Grade 3 Peter Pan on Opening Day, chased fourth and fifth with Belmont-third Max Player and Ohio Derby runner-up South Bend toward the back through the opening splits of :23.65 and :48.36. 

The small crowd continued to look on as the field hit the far turn as Uncle Chuck and Luis Saez, starting to look softened up through 6 furlongs in 1:11.95, only held a half-length edge at the half-mile pole. Franco said he wanted to wait a bit longer to engage the leader, wary of potential late runners and because Tiz The Law (like the others) hadn’t been tested beyond 9 furlongs. 

“Going to the three-eighths, I was trying to wait more because I knew I got him,” he said of Uncle Chuck. “He was riding and trying to keep up, so I was a little bit worried about the horses behind me. I was trying to save more horse before I made my move.”

Tiz The Law, just like he did in the Champagne last year and Holy Bull, Florida Derby and Belmont this year, galloped away from the field with ease. Coming off the turn he opened up a clear advantage and Robin Smullen brought him home.

“Come on Tiz, come on Tiz, come on Tiz,” she said while walking toward the outside fence with Tagg. 

A camera crew followed every move and while Tiz The Law approached the finish Tagg provided one last bit of encouragement with a “come on, that a boy” with his binoculars slung over his shoulder. Tiz The Law improved to 4-for-4 in 2020 and the $535,000 first-place check boosted his earnings to $2,015,300. 

Tagg said he didn’t feel comfortable about the race until “right after the finish,” but it didn’t show. The only close call came after he plunged his hand into the ice chest for that pre-Travers bottle of water and nearly ran into someone on the clubhouse porch. 

“You always have some doubt because many different things can happen,” Tagg said. “I’ve brought good horses to a race before that stumble out of the gate. Anything can happen. That’s always in the back of your mind, but I was very confident in the horse. Just myself, I was very confident in the horse.”

Tagg also won his first Travers, 17 years removed from having to scratch the fan favorite Funny Cide from Saratoga’s signature event the morning of the race. The ancient test, also won by New York-breds Ruthless and Thunder Rumble, is one he’s held in high regard since starting his training career in the early 1970s. 

“I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve always wanted to win the Travers,” he said. “The Travers has been in my head my whole life. I’ve always wanted to win the Travers, I don’t know why. And now it happened so it couldn’t be better.”

Caracaro and Javier Castellano, second by a neck in the Peter Pan after a seven-month break, made a long, sustained run to finish second and were 2 lengths ahead of Max Player at the finish. South Bend finished fourth with Country Grammer fifth, Uncle Chuck a tired sixth and Shivaree essentially eased. First Line was scratched the morning of the race. 

The trainers of the two immediately vanquished by Tiz The Law, Gustavo Delgado and Linda Rice, watched the replay on a small monitor on the clubhouse porch and saluted the winner while looking ahead. 

“He’s amazing,” Rice said of Tiz The Law. “He’s got a lot of tactical speed and does it so effortlessly.” 

Delgado held up three fingers, signifying the number of starts Caracaro made before the Travers and basically the number of weeks since his last start, before catching the rerun with members of owners Global Thoroughbred and Top Racing. 

“Nice horse, nice horse,” Delgado said of Tiz The Law before taking a phone call and turning it over to his son and assistant Gustavo Jr. 

“He’s getting there,” he said. “Second again, back in the Travers after three weeks, that’s a lot to ask for. We’re happy with him.”

Max Player finished 7 1/2 lengths behind Tiz The Law in just his second start since winning the Grade 3 Withers at Aqueduct Feb. 1. The Honor Code colt will join Tiz The Law and Caracaro on the way to Louisville for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby, but will do so for a new trainer after Rice said Tuesday that Max Player was transferred by owners George Hall and Sport BLX Thoroughbreds to Steve Asmussen.

 Tagg plans to train Tiz The Law in Saratoga with the rest of his string until about a week before the Derby. He said Sunday the colt would gallop for about 10 days with two breezes during the four-week gap between the Travers and Derby. 

Knowlton figures the buzz for the colt would continue to rev up during that period, something he’s well familiar with from Funny Cide’s run through the 2003 Triple Crown that came up just short in the Belmont Stakes. 

There’s no Tiz The Law store – at least not yet – but there is merchandise honoring the colt and his New York-bred status. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo even took to social media to laud racing’s latest star, saying on twitter he “does New York proud and is #NewYorkTough.”

“When we had Funny Cide and won the Derby, it was Funny Cide mania and this town was everything Funny Cide,” Knowlton said. “It’s taken a little time I think for Tiz to get to that point. I really believe after this race that he is going to be adopted, not only by Saratoga but even more by New York, and hopefully the country. The mask we have with Tiz on it, we’ve been getting calls from California and all over the country; they want a Tiz The Law mask.”

Tom’s Time. Stall veteran tackles Churchill Grade 2 in showdown with By My Standards. Written for June 27 2020 Special by Joe Clancy.

At Keeneland September in 2014, Frankie Wooten, his wife Daphne and trainer Al Stall Jr. kept going back to the bay colt in the Hunter Valley Farm consignment. Hip 743, a son of Smart Strike and the Giant’s Causeway mare Julia Tuttle was big and correct, moved well and would be a nice fit for the early phases of G M B Racing. 

Or at least the Wootens and Stall hoped so.

“It’s always the same at a sale when you see one you like,” said Frankie Wooten. “You hope nobody else sees what you see. You just try to find the conformation you like and make the right decision. We knew we liked him.”

They landed him for $330,000 and he spent his early days at the Wootens’ farm in Camden, S.C. earning the nickname “Bumble” for his attitude – or lack of attitude.

“He’d just bumble around there,” said Frankie. “He was always a nice mover, but he was just laid back and he’d kind of da-dum-da-dum along. Some, you light the fire when you start working them and I was worried that’s how he would get because he was always big and strong. I thought he might turn into a beast and be tough to handle. But he never did. I think that’s made him the horse he is now.”

The horse he is now is Tom’s d’Etat, even-money favorite for today’s $500,000 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs. Trained by Stall for G M B, the 7-year-old seeks his fourth consecutive win and 11th lifetime victory in the Grade 2 feature at 1 1/8 miles. The Foster goes at 5:47 p.m. as the 10th of 11 races on the card which finishes with four graded stakes.

Bred in Kentucky by SF Bloodstock, Tom’s d’Etat didn’t race at 2 and spent eight months on the sidelines in 2016-17 and another 15 months shelved in 2017-18 but he’s more than making up for lost time. Last year, he won three of seven including the Grade 1 Clark at Churchill while pushing his career earnings to more than $1.3 million. 

Those layoffs didn’t surprise Frankie Wooten all that much, and neither did the recent success.

“When we bought him he looked like a damn 2-year-old so you knew he was going to be big, and he had too much speed in those early days that it cost him some time,” he said. “All those joints and things had to set and a horse like that takes longer I guess. He was just that big and that fast as a young horse.”

Tom’s d’Etat spent this past winter at Fair Grounds with Stall, but didn’t race between November and April, and returned with an easy win in the Oaklawn Mile at Oaklawn Park April 11 after Keeneland scrapped its spring meet. Next comes the Foster and a showdown with By My Standards, who has also won three in a row, among a field of eight.

Stall called the time off a key for the nearly 1,200-pound Tom’s d’Etat, even if he never left the racetrack.

“At his age I wanted to keep him moving,” said the trainer. “He did a lot of walking for the first month, a lot of jogging, then a lot galloping. We let him down gently, and picked him back up gently. We stay on his feet and things. There’s nothing better for a horse than the day to day work they get in a racetrack barn. We kept him at Fair Grounds and he had a beautiful winter.”

Tom’s d’Etat joined Stall assistant Chelsea Coady at Oaklawn for the comeback race (Stall was prohibited from being there due to the coronavirus restrictions), and moved to Churchill when that stable area opened in mid-May. He worked a half-mile there May 22 and 30, then went three-quarters June 6 (1:12.80) as the major tightener for the Clark. 

“We got into Churchill Downs the first day we could get in there, and from that work, we’ve just stood pat and maintained,” said Stall. “He’s been making his marks.”

Regular jockey Joel Rosario stays in New York to ride Uni in the Grade 1 Just A Game, but Stall is confident in Miguel Mena, who has worked Tom’s d’Etat “no exaggeration, 20 times.” 

Allied Racing Stable’s By My Standards missed the second half of 2019 after finishing 11th in the Kentucky Derby, but has won three starts this year by a combined 10 3/4 lengths. The Goldencents colt handled optional claimers and the Grade 2 New Orleans Classic at Fair Grounds in February and March, then thumped 12 others in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap May 2. The Bret Calhoun trainee is undefeated at 1 1/8 miles and is 5-2 on the morning line with Gabriel Saez.

“By My Standards is tough. It’s his fourth race of the year and our second so he might have a little bit of an advantage over Tom and Owendale,” said Stall. “But we’re ready. We’re very excited about how he looks and how he’s doing.”

Tall Tom. Saratoga veteran tops stacked edition of signature stakes. Written for Aug. 1 Saratoga Special by Tom Law.

Al Stall Jr. leaned against the clubhouse box railing above the finish and touched the screen of his iPhone while Tom’s d’Etat worked alongside a stablemate not long after daybreak eight days out from today’s Grade 1 Whitney Stakes. 

Stall watched and tapped splits as Tom’s d’Etat and Joel Rosario loomed outside Skamania and exercise rider Olha Krushevska around the turn and into the lane, quickly making up the short deficit they started with on the backstretch, pulling even and eventually a couple lengths in front at the finish. Tom’s d’Etat continued to draw off after the finish and into the clubhouse turn, eventually galloping out more than 10 lengths ahead by the time the pair hit the backstretch. 

Stall, who sends out Tom’s d’Etat for owner G M B Racing in today’s Grade 1 Whitney Stakes, looked at the screen of his phone when the work was complete and saw what he’s come to expect from the 7-year-old son of Smart Strike. 

“I’ve got some beautiful numbers,” Stall said, the clubhouse floorboards creaking while he and longtime assistant Pam Fitzgerald walked down the steps. 

The stopwatch read :48.69, 1:01.15 and 1:14 and some change. When he reached the clockers upstairs he got word the official work went in :48.28 for the half and galloping out 5 furlongs in 1:01.22 and 6 furlongs in 1:14.28. 

Stall said he was looking for “nothing much” out of the work for the Whitney’s 6-5 morning-line favorite who brings a four-race win streak to one of Saratoga’s signature races. The trainer got a bit more than that, but that’s also come to be expected.

“I’ve learned over the years, we worked him twice in between the Fayette and the Clark and that worked out well,” Stall said of back-to-back victories last fall in Kentucky that started Tom’s d’Etat’s current win streak. “He worked before he left Churchill. So we just let him come up here, enjoy himself, get acclimated and used to the new, new surface. Start at the half-mile pole, let him gallop out, that kind of deal, let him know he’s a racehorse. I’m confident that he’s run really well with a schedule like that.”

Tom’s d’Etat worked like the professional he’s become after several physical setbacks early in his career that eventually cleared up and allowed him to realize the potential his connections saw back in 2014 when they paid $330,000 for him at the Keeneland September yearling sale. 

Stall met Tom’s d’Etat and Rosario on the horse path near the 1863 Club and immediately liked what he saw. Tom’s d’Etat loped along on the path, looking like a horse about to start his work and not one who just finished.

“Look at him, now he’s wondering when he’s going to eat,” Stall said before catching Rosario’s eye. “Everything OK? Listo?”

“Pretty good, right?” Rosario said.

Ready, too. Listo.

“He looked great,” Stall said. “He’ll just be worrying about his breakfast now. When you go to walk him and you have his water bucket and the guys have already cleaned his feed tub, instead of hitting the water he hits the empty feed tub. He’ll pull the hotwalker to it. All the time.”

Tom’s d’Etat, 3-for-4 at Saratoga going back to a 4-length maiden victory in August 2016, takes on four opponents who will try to pull him down from his spot at the top of the list of North America’s older horses. 

The others bring legitimate credentials to the $750,000 Whitney, a race Stall won in 2010 with eventual champion older male and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame. 

Code Of Honor won last year’s Travers Stakes at Saratoga for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, a three-time winner of the Whitney with Personal Ensign, Easy Goer and Honor Code. Improbable ships in for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who won last year’s Whitney with McKinzie. By My Standards finished second to Tom’s d’Etat last time out in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster after winning three in a row including the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap for trainer Bret Calhoun. Mr. Buff, New York-bred champion older male in 2019 and a multiple stakes winner, completes the cast of five. 

Collectively, the Whitney runners have won 41 of 90 starts, five Grade 1s and 13 graded stakes. Three of the five ranked among the top 10 of the NTRA’s weekly poll of leading horses – Tom’s d’Etat in second, By My Standards seventh and Code Of Honor 10th. Improbable also earned votes on that poll to put him 15th. 

“It’s not going to be easy,” McGaughey said. “It will be interesting to see what the tactics are with only five. I know where I’m going to be, but what the others are going to do and how much they’re going to press. Joel is not going to do anything stupid so hopefully he’ll be up in there fairly close like he was in the Stephen Foster and we are able to pick him up. That’s a pretty solid field, I feel like we’re lucky to be in it and if he runs his race we’ll know he’s there.”

Code Of Honor, the co-second choice on the line at 5-2 along with Improbable, figures to go off the second pick off his experience at Saratoga. He trained with McGaughey’s string out of his barn at the Oklahoma Training Track for his debut, which he won midway through the 2018 meeting going 6 furlongs on the lead, and again in advance of last year’s 3-length victory in the Travers. John Velazquez, seeking his fifth Whitney victory, returns aboard Code Of Honor. 

McGaughey said he’s been impressed with Tom’s d’Etat watching him win the Oaklawn Mile in his 2020 debut April 11 in Hot Springs and more than two months later in the Grade 2 Stephen Foster at Churchill. 

“I watched him run in Arkansas and watched him run in the Stephen Foster and I was very impressed,” McGaughey said. “What’s been behind him I don’t know. I know By My Standards was but I don’t think he ran his race in Louisville. (Tom’s d’Etat has) done it the right way, done it effortless, he’s going to be tough Saturday but this isn’t Oaklawn and Churchill Downs either.”

Stall draws confidence from Tom’s d’Etat’s record here in Saratoga, where he also won the Alydar Stakes last year before a close fourth in the Grade 1 Woodward on closing weekend, but also from injury-free seasons the last two years. 

Tom’s d’Etat didn’t run as a 2-year-old and spent eight months on the sidelines in 2016-17 and another 15 months on the bench in 2017-18. He’s battled foot issues and needed surgery when a condylar fracture was detected after his maiden win in 2017. 

He’s run steadily since November 2018 – aside from prescribed time off in the winter – to today’s Whitney, winning seven of 11 starts with a second, third and a fourth. The only blemish to his record was a ninth in the slop at Gulfstream Park for the 2019 Pegasus World Cup Invitational. 

“He just decided to stay sound about two years ago and we had a chance to go on with him,” Stall said. “Obviously there’s no substitute for talent and class. He’s got that. And he obviously has a tremendous cardio. For him to run that type of race in the Stephen Foster off 213 days with just one short mile race is tremendous. 

“He was training great going into it but I worried, would a lack of recency get to him? It didn’t and that tells me the rest of the year he’s on an easy cruise. He’s got whatever it takes.”

Clean Cut. Baffert’s Improbable acts up in gate, breaks cleanly as rivals struggle in Grade 1 triumph. Written for Aug. 5 Saratoga Special by Tom Law.

A John Deere tractor hummed while horsemen and other humans associated with the players for the 93rd Whitney Stakes found spots – socially distant for the most part – in the silent, empty and ancient Saratoga Race Course grandstand, clubhouse and on the apron Saturday Aug. 1. 

Nearly 3,000 miles away in his Southern California home, Bob Baffert settled into what he calls his “Grade 1 couch” while Improbable and the other four Whitney runners stepped to the starting gate. Al Stall Jr. stood about 50 feet from the starting gate, watching Tom’s d’Etat finish his warmup and take his spot. 

Improbable, as he’s wont to do, helped snuff out the silence. The black-blinkered chestnut reared back in his No. 2 stall, nearly hitting his head and dumping jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. out the back of the starting gate. 

“No, no, no, no, no, no,” came cries from the assistant starters and jockeys as Improbable’s somewhat predictable antics caused Code Of Honor to his outside and By My Standards to his inside to also become unsettled.

Stall, watching even-money favorite Tom’s d’Etat fidget and hold his head higher than preferred, offered the same response. 

“No, no, no no,” the trainer said while Improbable tossed his head some more and kept the gate crew busy with the other runners. 

A few more “No, no, nos,” more silence and finally the bell to send the quintet on their 9-furlong journey in one of Saratoga’s signature events. The moment John Imbriale said “And they’re off,” Tom’s d’Etat took a step, bobbled and stepped twice more to his right while spotting the leaders 5 lengths. By My Standards also stumbled, not nearly as bad as Tom’s d’Etat, while Mr. Buff, Improbable and Code Of Honor stayed straight and flashed past the finish post. 

After the beep, beep, beep of the ambulance and roar of the John Deere’s engine faded as the gate moved up the stretch Mr. Buff set the pace while Ortiz found a perfect stalking position just behind through the opening quarter in a pedestrian :25.12. Improbable tracked about a length back through that split and to an ordinary half in :49.74, chased by By My Standards, Code Of Honor and Tom’s d’Etat. 

The task for the chasers – Jose Ortiz on By My Standards, John Velazquez on Code Of Honor and Joel Rosario on Tom’s d’Etat – seemed difficult around the far turn and past 6 furlongs in 1:13.36. 

After some smooches, claps and finger snaps by those on hand, Mr. Buff backed out of it and Improbable was clear. And the job of chasing him went from difficult to nearly impossible. 

Improbable led by 3 at the eighth pole and held off By My Standards by 2 lengths at the finish, with Tom’s d’Etat making only a small dent in the advantage another half-length back in third. Improbable, running in WinStar Farm’s colors and for a partnership that also includes China Horse Club and SF Racing, won in 1:48.65.

“He never broke like that in his life,” Stall said. “All that that yelling, screaming, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, and we get left. Yeah, we load, we stand and all that other nonsense and we’re the ones that take the worst of it.”

Elliott Walden watched the Whitney with Kenny and Lisa Troutt and their family and immediately had mixed emotions. 

“We actually bought the breeding rights of Tom’s d’Etat so that [the stumbled start] was a bit unfortunate,” Walden said. 

Improbable’s connections certainly know a thing or two about bad breaks from the gate. 

An unbeaten Grade 1 winner as a 2-year-old, Improbable went into last year’s Triple Crown prep season as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby. He finished second in his final prep, beaten just a length by Omaha Beach, after gate troubles in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. Improbable crossed the finish fifth and was elevated to fourth in the Kentucky Derby following Maximum Security’s disqualification and went to Baltimore as the favorite for the Preakness. 

Gate issues again proved troublesome for the City Zip colt and he never threatened when sixth behind War Of Will. After a win in the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar, Improbable shipped back to the East Coast for the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby, where he broke poorly and checked in fourth. 

“He’s a high-energy horse and it’s not as surprising when you’ve seen it a few times,” Walden said. “It is something that’s cost him a couple races. The Pennsylvania Derby is a race he was compromised in because he broke in the air. He typically has one little episode in him and it’s just a question of getting that out of the way and then he settles down.”

Walden credited Baffert and his team for ironing out some of the kinks around the starting gate, work that’s helped produce two wins in three starts this year. 

“Winning the Whitney is huge,” said Baffert, who also won last year’s Whitney with McKinzie, Tuesday. “I train for these clients who want to be in these races and win these races. They want to be competitive.”

Ortiz rode Improbable in the Kentucky Derby after his brother Jose rode the colt in the Arkansas Derby. In the six starts since the Derby the horse has been ridden by Mike Smith, Drayden Van Dyke and Rafael Bejarano. Ortiz noticed the difference between the Derby and the Whitney. 

“Finally, he’s grown up a little bit,” he said. “He turned into a nice horse. Mr. Baffert did a great job with him. He broke really good today . . . He’s been like that since he was 2 or 3. We know him so I was ready for it. The starter did a great job. He stuck with the horse, he fixed it.”

Improbable improved to 6-for-13 and boosted his bankroll to $1,529,520. He also earned an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 7 at Keeneland with the victory through the “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series. 

A rematch with at least some of his beaten rivals in the Whitney figures to come in the $5 million Classic. 

Stall said Tuesday morning that Tom’s d’Etat didn’t show any signs that his stumble caused any injury and that he’d ship the 7-year-old son of Smart Strike back to Kentucky by plane a few days after Saturday’s Travers Stakes. No firm plans are set for Tom’s d’Etat, who could train up to the Classic. 

“He trained this morning, smooth, looked great, moved well, all good,” Stall said Wednesday. 

Trainer Bret Calhoun, who vanned By My Standards from Churchill Downs the day before the race, also hopes for another chance with the 4-year-old son of Goldencents who has three wins and two seconds from five starts this year. 

“I was hoping today was the day,” Calhoun said. “He does show up. You think one of these days he’s going to have a breakout race. He’s gotten better and better and better. He’s going to pop one of these big ones. It’s not like he’s not already pretty accomplished, but one day soon he’ll get one of the big ones.

“He ran good. They got away to pretty soft fractions. Jose got him in good position but they were just walking the dog up there. That horse is tough to run down off those type of fractions for sure. My horse ran very, very well. Maybe if he doesn’t have an inside post he gets away a little sharper, maybe gets up in the race a little better, but overall he ran a really good race.”

Back In Gear. World traveler Tacitus makes Saratoga return off two-month break. Written for Sept. 5 Saratoga Special by Tom Law.

Tacitus racked up some miles this winter and spring, going from Payson Park in Florida to Saudi Arabia, then a short hop from Riyadh to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates and ultimately back to Florida. That’s a little over 23,000 miles if you’re keeping track.

In the midst of the pandemic and with the trip to the UAE for naught when the Dubai World Cup was canceled, Bill Mott thought one more trip might be the right move for Juddmonte Farm’s sturdy son of Tapit. A trip to Hot Springs, Ark., for the Oaklawn Handicap seemed like the right move at the time, but ultimately proved wrong.

“We traveled to Saudi Arabia, we traveled to Dubai and then I foolishly took him to Oaklawn,” Mott said Thursday, standing outside the gray colt’s stall and coercing him to poke his head out with a scoop of sweet feed. “I was frustrated, asking myself, ‘Are we ever going to race again anywhere?’ I thought we had to run. That was probably a bad training move.”

By Tacitus standards, Tacitus didn’t fire in the Oaklawn Handicap, finishing fourth behind By My Standards, Warrior’s Charge and Mr. Freeze. The race wasn’t a complete bust, he lost by only 4 lengths, but messed up some timing and the chance to run in Churchill Downs’ Stephen Foster and Saratoga’s Whitney. 

Mott adjusted and two months after the Oaklawn Handicap stayed in New York for the Grade 2 Suburban at 10 furlongs, which Tacitus won in a laugher. Now two months after that victory, he eyes his first Grade 1 in today’s Woodward Stakes at the same distance. 

“With the traveling, we missed a little training, I don’t know,” Mott said. “If I could do it over I wouldn’t go to Oaklawn. But we did and then we won the Suburban. 

“We were in such flux at the time as far as this virus goes. We didn’t even know which racetracks were going to open. We didn’t even know if they were going to open here,” Mott said. “We had no idea. They were not open when I took him to Oaklawn. They weren’t open in Kentucky. Maybe we panicked, thinking, ‘You’re never going to run again.’ That’s why he went to Oaklawn.”

Tacitus, second in two prior starts at Saratoga in last year’s Grade 1 Travers and Grade 2 Jim Dandy, takes on five opponents in the Woodward. None ran in the Whitney, which featured a field of five many considered the best race in the country this year. 

The Woodward drew a pair from trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn in Moretti, second to Tacitus in the Suburban and winner of the 1 ¾-mile Birdstone Aug. 2 at Saratoga, and Spinoff, winner of the restricted Alydar Aug. 9 at Saratoga. 

Global Campaign, the second choice at 5-2 to Tacitus at even money, ships in from Kentucky for trainer Stan Hough off a win last time in the Grade 3 Monmouth Cup. 

Math Wizard, the lone Grade 1 winner in the field after his 31-1 upset of the Pennsylvania Derby last year before a fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, returns off a week’s rest for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. 

Trainer Jim Bond, in the midst of a strong Saratoga meet with 12 wins after Rinaldi’s victory in the West Point Stakes Friday, aims high with Bill Clifton Jr.’s last-out Saratoga winner Prioritize.

“A meet to remember,” Bond said Thursday morning on his way to watch a set train on Clare Court.

Prioritize started his career on the grass, where he won and finished third in the restricted Better Talk Now Stakes and Grade 2 Hill Prince as a 3-year-old. The son of Tizway, who Bond trained to win the Grade 1 Met Mile and Whitney as a 5-year-old, stayed on the turf last year before making the switch in late 2019. 

“He just lost a bit of interest for me on the turf and I couldn’t find any rhyme or reason, so I decided to take a shot and try him on dirt,” Bond said. “His works on dirt in the morning were OK, nothing over the top. He sure has improved.”

Risked for a $35,000 tag in a 1-mile race Dec. 20, Prioritize won at nearly 14-1 before coming back to finish second in a higher level optional claimer without being entered for a price. 

Bond didn’t winter in Florida this year and when racing shut down in March he, like many of his colleagues, was forced to wait. Prioritize picked up where he left off when racing returned to New York. He didn’t come with Bond’s string bedded down on Gridley Street immediately when the Oklahoma Training Track opened in early June but soon after a runner-up in another optional at 1 1/16 miles at Belmont June 18. 

Prioritize won a 9-furlong optional July 25 at Saratoga, defeating the Kentucky Derby-bound Money Moves by a neck and got Bond thinking about the Woodward. He called the Woodward a “dream spot” for the gelding, who gets in light at 115 pounds and nine less than Tacitus. 

“It’s a mile-and-a-quarter and the way he ran (July 25) it looks like he’ll get the distance,” Bond said. “A lot of horses won’t get the distance. … He ran a great race the other day, showed his determination and he just seems to be climbing. His numbers are just getting better and better. Tizway was a pretty good horse at 5. Maybe he’s following his daddy’s footsteps.

“He’s doing good and he’s won on the surface here. Sometimes you throw the ball and hopefully he can catch it.”

World Beater. Connections savor Grade 1 score with traveler Global Campaign. Written for Sept. 12 Saratoga Special by Tom Law.

Global Campaign spent five days in Saratoga leading up to the Grade 1 Woodward Handicap and his human companions spent five days worrying and fretting about the colt who in the words of his trainer has “been his own worst enemy in the past.”

He’s not a bad actor per se, just a good-feeling, playful kind of colt who could find trouble if there’s trouble to find. Like many in Saratoga this year, Global Campaign didn’t find much trouble – at least not by Saratoga standards – and the hassle-free stay precluded a victory in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes.

Global Campaign and Luis Saez did all the work in Saturday’s 10-furlong Woodward, staying in front of 3-5 favorite Tacitus early and withstanding a stiff challenge from that rival in the stretch to win by 1 3/4 lengths. He won his second straight graded stakes in the $500,000 Woodward and gave his connections reason to finally exhale. 

“That whole week, you know how things can go, they can do one thing and it can change,” said Jocelyn Brooks, chief of staff for Kevin Plank’s Sagamore Racing, which owns the 4-year-old Curlin colt in partnership with his breeder WinStar Farm. “Laz (Cruz), Stan Hough’s assistant, that first night I don’t think he slept.

“Anything small you just start worrying and you just want to get him there. Especially with him. The whole team spent so much time trying to get him right. He’s been doing so well so you try to do anything you can so he doesn’t figure out a way to rip off a shoe or something to jeopardize all the hard work. Especially when it seems like he’s doing so well and ready to run.”

Global Campaign, plagued by foot issues that started last March and cost him a chance at the Triple Crown and later the Travers, showed up ready and delivered. 

Sent off the 5-2 second choice in the field of five – depleted by one with the scratch of Moretti – Global Campaign clicked off quarters in :24.65, :24.24 and :23.01 to hit the 6-furlong mark on the backstretch in 1:11.90. 

Saez, who once thought Global Campaign could be his 2019 Kentucky Derby mount before he wound up on Maximum Security, sensed an improved horse under him than the one he rode to back-to-back victories last January and February at Gulfstream before a fifth in the Fountain of Youth. Global Campaign grabbed a quarter in the Fountain of Youth and made only two starts the rest of 2019 – a win in the Grade 3 Peter Pan at Belmont Park and a third in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga – when the foot issues resurfaced. 

“He’s grown a lot,” Saez said. “He’s a different kind of horse. He feels like more strong, he grew, he’s better.”

Global Campaign showed how much better when Tacitus, off since winning the Grade 2 Suburban at 10 furlongs July 4 at Belmont, took the race to him around the far turn. The two raced on almost even terms around the bend, well clear of the nearest chaser Spinoff with Prioritize and Math Wizard even farther back. 

Global Campaign never let Tacitus closer than his shoulder and spurted away past the mile in 1:35.42. He opened 1 1/2 lengths in mid-stretch and, even though his connections conceded that he idled a bit in deep stretch, never looked in jeopardy of losing the lead in the lane. Tacitus held second 1 ¼ lengths in front of Prioritize, who was three-quarters of a length clear of Spinoff. Global Campaign won in 2:01.40.

“With a horse pressuring you, it’s not easy to do it like that,” said Hunter Rankin, Sagamore’s president. “Luis felt like he won with something in the tank. Once he gets out there in front he does kind of shut off the engine so I think he had something left. I’m hoping he’s capable of even more than he did the other day. 

“He seems to be doing really good right now. He came out of the race very well. Obviously we’re super excited. We dream about having horses like him, we don’t have as many chances as a lot of people do. We have a really good partnership with WinStar and we’re just really fortunate to have him.”

WinStar Farm bred Global Campaign out of the A.P. Indy mare Globe Trot and offered him through Select Sales at the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale. Rankin said the colt’s slightly offset knees, which he’s grown out of, helped make him affordable to Sagamore and he sold for $250,000. WinStar stayed in as a partner but he’s been part of the Sagamore program and with Hough for his entire career. 

After his third in the Jim Dandy last summer behind Tax and Tacitus and with the Travers off the table due to the lingering foot issue, Global Campaign went to WinStar for time off, rehab and to start prepping for his 4-year-old campaign. The bothersome issues cleared up and he returned with Hough this past winter at Palm Meadows Training Center. 

Global Campaign started 2020 with a win in a 7-furlong optional at Gulfstream in late April before a sixth in the Blame Stakes behind Owendale, Everfast and Silver Dust, an effort compromised by a poor start and a wide trip. He returned to win the Grade 3 Monmouth Cup as the 5-2 favorite July 16 and Hough set his sights on the Woodward. 

After five works at home at Churchill, Global Campaign flew from Louisville to Albany and bedded down in the stakes barn behind the paddock. He trained every morning during the designated time for out-of-town stakes runners, showing improvement with every gallop over the main track. 

Brooks, who handles everything from corporate communications to horse roster management to social media for Plank, Rankin and Sagamore, traveled too and went to work. 

“Because of the situation with trying to get help to different tracks we really didn’t have anyone,” she said. “I always volunteer my services as a hotwalker but this was the first time that they’ve actually accepted. So it was just me and Laz. Because I’m usually at the farm (in Maryland) I haven’t had much time to spend with him. It was cool to get to know him and his personality. They always talk about how cool he is. He is cool, even if he’s taking bites out of you. He’s just a real fun horse to be around.”

 From all reports Global Campaign liked to be in the middle of the fun, or at least trying to get the good times rolling. 

Hough said he’s grown out of that a bit and hopes the “the things that bothered him” and that he “caused himself” are in the past with an eye on the Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 7 at Keeneland Race Course down the road. 

Brooks and Rankin hope for the same.

“Most likely in the Classic with a backup being the Dirt Mile. Because it’s two turns, I like that option,” Rankin said. “He’s got tactical speed. If everything goes right, I think he would end up in the Classic. He’s more lightly raced than some but he’s got the talent. Obviously you have to have a lot of things go your way to be successful in those races. He’s doing as good as he can right now.”