ELMONT, N.Y. — Barclay Tagg was the perfect man to win the big race on Belmont Park’s Silent Saturday.
The taciturn Tagg, 82-year-old trainer of dominant Belmont Stakes winner Tiz the Law, detests hoopla, dislikes crowds and disdains media attention. If anyone in thoroughbred racing was made for quarantine life and empty racetracks, it’s him. He acknowledged the need for fans to sustain the sport, but also said he enjoyed “the quietude” of the day, when a Triple Crown race was won and about a dozen people scattered around the stands tepidly clapped.
It was so quiet that when Tiz the Law cruised past the wire, jockey Manuel Franco’s celebratory “Yeahhhh!” was plainly audible on the second level of the grandstand. Normally that would have been drowned out by the roars of up to 120,000 fans, but this was far from normal. An event that traditionally is as rowdy and raucous as New York itself might as well have been contested in a library.
So of course Tagg enjoyed it. In a life devoted to training horses seven days a week and 51 weeks a year — with one week set aside for vacation in the Caribbean — everything else is just clutter. When asked what he planned to do to celebrate this momentous victory, the look on Tagg’s face could have curdled a glass of milk. “Eat some supper and go to bed,” he responded. “I’ve got to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning.”
Tagg then transitioned into a brief diatribe about fireworks being shot off in the neighborhood where he lives, near the old track on Hempstead Turnpike. “If they set off firecrackers in the street like they did all last night — it was awful,” he said. “Two o’clock in the morning, one after the other, bang-bang-bang-bang.”
It sounded, for all the world, like The Grinch complaining about all that noise-noise-noise-noise coming out of Whoville on Christmas day. Here’s hoping Tagg got a peaceful night’s sleep in his version of Mount Crumpet, because he wakes up Sunday in an uncomfortable position on racing’s center stage for the rest of the summer.
In the rearranged Triple Crown, Tiz the Law will be a formidable contender. His prime competition is injured: undefeated Bob Baffert trainees Nadal and Charlatan are both out; Nadal for good after a career-ending injury, and Charlatan through the Sept. 5th Kentucky Derby, at least. (Baffert has some backup options, and might be tempted to run unbeaten filly Gamine against the boys in the Derby after her awe-inspiring, 18-length victory in the Acorn Stakes on the Belmont undercard.)
The bunch that was dusted here has a lot of ground to make up, after Tiz the Law cruised by nearly four lengths over runner-up Dr. Post. Now Tagg will try to navigate a path through the second half of 2020 that keeps his horse fresh and healthy. The plan for now, he said, is to enter Tiz the Law in the Travers Aug. 8 at Saratoga; the Derby Sept. 5; and the Preakness Oct. 3. “And if there’s anything left of him, I’d like to take him to the Breeders Cup (Nov. 6-7),” Tagg said.
That would be an ambitious run for a modern thoroughbred: four huge races in four months at four different tracks. But the spacing of the races after this Belmont — coupled with its shorter-than-normal distance — should lessen the wear and tear on Tiz the Law between now and that start of that gauntlet.
Maybe, by then, fans (and horse owners) will be allowed back into racetracks. It would be a welcome return, because Saturday was just plain strange here. This was probably the biggest sports event in America since the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down on March 12, yet it felt like watching a high-school golf match.
When the Belmont is at the end of the Triple Crown — and there is a horse with a chance to win all three — the place is suffused with energy. Crowds stream off the trains from Manhattan ready to party, packing the old grandstand and filling the paddock area. These big race days are when the sport feels truly vibrant.
This time around, you could hear the birds chirping in the trees. The vast parking lot was empty. The walkways that normally are choked with people, the long betting lines, the shouts of the beer vendors — all those things were missing.
It was the same way Friday, on the eve of the race — everything unsettlingly quiet. There was none of the usual two-legged traffic that populates Belmont’s sprawling, pastoral stable area on the day before the race. No ownership groups congregating outside their horses’ barns. No clots of media circling trainers for interviews. No worker bustle prepping the big place for its biggest race.
On Saturday, they tried to dress up the cavernous building like usual, with red-white-and-blue bunting on the facade of the grandstand and flowers in the winner’s circle. The bugler who performs the call to the post was in his customary place and wearing the customary outfit — red coat, black top hat, red striped tie, white pants, black boots. They had a video message from New York governor Andrew Cuomo giving the “riders up” call before the big race. And they even played the traditional Sinatra version of “New York, New York.”
That usually sets off a cacophony of boozy bellowing along from the crowd, fans arm-in-arm, as the Belmont horses take the track. There was none of that Saturday, just 10 horses and 10 jockeys and a few media members, horsemen and security personnel scattered around the place.
The race itself was weird as well, an uncomfortable event for purists and traditionalists. Not only was the Triple Crown out of order, but the Belmont itself was reduced from the 1 1/2-mile “test of a champion” to a 1 1/8-mile pop quiz. Instead of traversing both of the track’s wide, sweeping turns, the horses ran from out of a chute on the backstretch and around just one turn. What normally takes 2 1/2 minutes to unfold instead was done in less than 1:50.
That will put an asterisk on Tiz the Law’s victory, but there was never any doubt he was the best horse Saturday. It was a textbook “Tiz” trip — stalking leader Tap It To Win, then rolling past him heading into the stretch and drawing off.
Upstate in Saratoga Springs, the Sackatoga Stables ownership group was undoubtedly going crazy. Unable to come to the track, Jack Knowlton and his crew had commandeered Pennell’s Restaurant for a viewing party. They got to see their horse finally take a Belmont that eluded them and Tagg 17 years earlier.
On that day in 2003, a New York-bred gelding named Funny Cide was trying to win the Triple Crown after surprising Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories. But rain scuttled those hopes, and Empire Maker beat the best horse Knowlton ever owned and Tagg ever trained.
“I just remember rain, and the longer that the day went, the harder it rained,” Knowlton said earlier this week. “I tell everybody that I’ll go to my grave wondering what might have happened had we not had a rainstorm and had a fast track that day.”
They got the fast track Saturday. Jockey Franco’s red-and-gray argyle silks were nearly spotless after the race.
Both Knowlton and Tagg had wondered, understandably, if they’d ever get back to this level of the game again. Knowlton’s group doesn’t have deep pockets, and Tagg doesn’t attract big-money clients. He’s been in the sport forever but rarely played at the high end.
“I’m very, very pleased for Barclay,” Knowlton said. “For 50 years, has been involved in this sport and now I’m fortunate as an owner of Sackatoga to have probably, for sure, the two most accomplished horses that he’s had.”
Said Tagg, reveling in the moment as only he can: “I’m just lucky I lived long enough.”
This was a dream day for Barclay Tagg. His training acumen helped a talented horse win a Triple Crown race. And it happened on a Silent Saturday.