So here came the Belmont Stakes, 10 horses and their owners and trainers and jockeys with a dream, allowing us to remember what it was like to fall in love with the romance of sports, even if the grandstand for this unprecedented Belmont Stakes was eerily empty because all the fans and bettors had to watch from afar.
It is the beauty and the drama of the Triple Crown: No matter what order the races are run in, somebody gets to carry a dream into the second leg of a sport that has illustrated how to effectively leave a merciless, remorseless pandemic that has delayed and threatens to compromise or further interrupt all the other major professional sports back in the starting gate.
And that somebody, following a taped “Riders up” from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a taped Sinatra “New York, New York” will be Tiz the Law, who won by four lengths over Dr Post with a furious finishing kick that would have made Secretariat proud. Tiz the Law, the first New York-bred horse to win the Belmont Stakes in 138 years.
That somebody will be jockey Manny Franco.
That somebody will be 82-year-old trainer Barclay Tagg.
And that somebody will be Sackatoga Stable owner Jack Knowlton.
A distance of 189.1 miles separated the Sackatoga Stable boys from Belmont Park and the first big New York sports event since March, and a distance of 17 years separated Funny Cide from Tiz the Law.
Pennell’s Restaurant, 284 Jefferson St., Saratoga Springs, was more than enough social distance mandated by the coronavirus. There were 35 Tiz the Law loyalists wearing masks in a tent outside the place hours before the start of this Belmont Stakes, and this was where some of the Sackatoga Stable boys would watch a race held at the same place that had left them with a failed Triple Crown bid and the heartbreak that goes along with one.
That was in the good old days when the Belmont was the last leg of the Triple Crown instead of the first, when the Belmont was the 1 ¹/₂-mile Test of the Champion instead of the 1 ¹/₈ mile it was on Saturday, when there were 101,864 hyperventilating fans at the 2003 Belmont Stakes, or 101,864 more than there were at the 2020 Belmont Stakes.
When there was no pandemic.
The Sackatoga Stable boys again sent out the favorite, but as good as they may have felt about Tiz the Law, they hadn’t forgotten how good they felt about Funny Cide before the rain and the slop and Empire Maker conspired to rob them of a piece of history 25 years since Affirmed had won a Triple Crown.
And these 17 years waiting for another Belmont Stakes shot.
“There’s only one standing!” Knowlton told The Post afterward.
And the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby is next. “He certainly looks like a horse that will relish a mile-and-a-quarter,” Knowlton said.
Give Tagg credit for this perfect marriage between horse and jockey. “It looked to me like everything just worked like clockwork,” Tagg said.
Franco is a rising star who has been mentored by the great Angel Cordero Jr. “Perfect ride by Manny,” Knowlton said.
Not quite redemption for Funny Cide. But reason to laugh again.
“Barclay doesn’t get a lot of real good horses, but when he gets one, and fortunately Sackatoga’s had two of ’em, he knows what to do with ’em,” Knowlton said.
Tiz the Law was the 4-5 favorite, and with good reason.
“You’re never sure if you’ve got him exactly right,” Tagg said, “and this guy makes it easy for you. He says, ‘I’m ready, let’s go.’ ”
(Tiz the Law talks, too?)
“I knew I got a lot of horse,” Franco said.
Knowlton was asked what the scene at Pennell’s was like.
“It was crazy,” he said. “Whooping and hollering … we couldn’t be there, but we made the best of it, I’ll tell you that.”
We miss the walk-off home runs. We miss the miracles on ice. We miss the breathtaking dunks and buzzer-beater 3s.
No one can predict how MLB, if it ever decides to give us a shortened season, and the NBA, NHL and NFL will fare against the pandemic, how many more positive tests there will be, how many will be quarantined.
When you talk about “New York tough,” you can start with the NYRA, because the NYRA was the first to defy these long odds.
“Tiz the Law ran for all of us and won, embodying what it means to be New York Tough,” Gov. Cuomo said in a statement. “It was a different Belmont this year but thanks to all for making this iconic racing event happen.”
Win, place and show for the Sport of Kings.