Tiz the Law Could Be The Hero We Need Now
By Mike Farrell
Roughly 20 years ago Laura Hillenbrand transported us back to a troubled time in our history with her compelling best seller “Seabiscuit: An American Legend.”
The non-fiction account, later to become a movie, chronicled the story of a champion, who, although somewhat small in stature, became a legend on the racetrack and a symbol of hope for Americans trapped in the despair of the Great Depression.
Flash forward to the present, and we again find ourselves gripped by fear and uncertainty as a pandemic grinds on relentlessly and some of our major cities are engulfed in flames.
We sure could use a hero today.
The good news is that one exists in our midst: Tiz the Law. He’s exactly what we need now.
He doesn’t fire off inflammatory tweets. He offers no opinions in the midst of a hyper-partisan political season. Tiz the Law goes about his business brilliantly and professionally, leaving the bickering to others.
He is surrounded by the team of jockey Manny Franco and trainer Barclay Tagg — along with assistant and constant companion Robin Smullen — who are both humbled by the experience and reluctant to the seize the spotlight.
The focus is strictly on the horse, and preparing for the next race. How refreshing!
In every heroic tale, the protagonist reaches a climactic moment. Tiz the Law is approaching his: the Kentucky Derby (G1) on Sept. 5.
He will be the top-heavy favorite in the world’s most famous race. The Derby arrives four months later than usual in this coronavirus scrambled season and will be contested before an empty grandstand at Churchill Downs.
Just as millions gathered around radios in 1938 to hear Seabiscuit defeat War Admiral in the “Match of the Century,” an international television audience will watch Tiz the Law take aim at the second jewel of the Triple Crown.
It felt strange to write the previous sentence. Never before have I referred to the Derby as anything other than the start of the Triple Crown.
It’s probably not a wise idea to wager against our hero. He has run four times this year, starting with Holy Bull Stakes (G3) on Feb. 1 at Gulfstream. Through the Florida Derby (G1), on to the Belmont and most recently in the Travers (G1). Tiz the Law not only emerged victorious each time but looks stronger and more dominant with each win.
He crushed the Travers competition by 5 ½ lengths, a remarkable testimony to Tiz the Law’s talent and the patient skill of Tagg to keep the colt at the top of his game over such an extended timeframe.
It’s been a remarkable ride for Franco, who climbed aboard for the first time in the victory in the Champagne Stakes (G1) last October and has remained there ever since.
There is often a temptation with the horse of this ability to reach out for a higher-profile rider. The Sackatoga Stable and Tagg have remained loyal to the 25-year-old journeyman jockey from Puerto Rico.
Their reward: a rider and horse completely in sync while undertaking a remarkable journey.
“It’s made me a better jockey with this opportunity,” Franco said. “I’m grateful for that.”
One of the oldest clichés on the backstretch is that having young horses in the barn keeps you young.
That’s certainly been the case with Tagg as Tiz the Law delivered the two victories that eluded the octogenarian trainer.
Tagg had been down this road before, winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2003 with Sackatoga’s Funny Cide. The track was packed on a wet, dreary afternoon for Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid in the Belmont Stakes. He ran third in slop to Empire Maker, a crushing end to a magical run by the New York-bred gelding.
Funny Cide raced sparingly the rest of that year, missing the Travers with a lung infection.
In this year’s turned-around calendar, Tiz the Law has already given Tagg those Belmont and Travers victories that Funny Cide never could.
You never know what the future holds but this might be Tagg’s last kick at the can. He is 82, still active and at the barn every morning, afternoon and evening with Smullen.
Horses this special are rare commodities. For most trainers other than Bob Baffert, these exceptional talents are few and far between.
Unlike Baffert, Tagg abhors publicity. He would rather visit the proctologist than sit for an interview. He has a sense of humor but usually keeps it well hidden to the outside world.
There will be no snappy quotes, no headline fodder from Tagg.
He can be cantankerous, as was often the case during the Funny Cide run when Tagg felt the media horde crushing in.
Tagg was back on the Triple Crown trail in 2008 with Tale of Ekati, who finished fourth in the Derby.
One morning in the days before the race, I finished my interview assignments and was ready to leave the Churchill Downs backstretch when I decided to look in on Tagg.
As I approached, Tagg let out a torrent.
“Jesus Christ,” he bellowed. “I just went through this for 45 minutes. There was a crowd, cameras and everything. I can’t go over this all again.”
I assured him this was just a courtesy call, not an interview request. And then I was treated to one of those rare sights: a Barclay smile.
“Good morning to you too,” he said.
In some respects, the pandemic has worked in Tagg’s favor. It has severely limited the number of reporters covering the races and it keeps most of the pesky fans and tourists at bay.
Tagg can go about his business in peace and quiet, preparing the horses, and one brilliant performer in particular, without interruption.
At long last, the Kentucky Derby is drawing near. We’ll soon find out if our hero is up to the challenge.
Let’s hope so. We could all use an uplifting experience in these tormented times.