Against the odds, Sackatoga Stables is back for Saturday’s fan-less Belmont Stakes with the favorite, Tiz the Law.
The 3-year-old bay colt will also be a local favorite — 17 years after Sackatoga Stable’s Triple Crown dream died in the mud of Long Island.
The gutsy gelding Funny Cide was the 2003 crowd favorite — winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. There were 101,562 fans in the rain who watched the grinder fall short, keeping the Triple Crown drought alive at 25 years.
Saratoga Springs resident Jack Knowlton formed the modest Sackatoga syndicate in 1995 with five of his high school buddies from upstate Jefferson County, each chipping in $5,000 apiece.
He prefers to remember the spirit at the post-Belmont party at a JFK airport hotel rather than being denied history.
About 350 friends and family of the syndicate drove down in vans from upstate New York, looking to witness Triple Crown history. Instead, Empire Maker, beaten in the Kentucky Derby, caught Funny Cide on the far turn after sitting out the Preakness to rest.
“The last time we ran in the Belmont it ended in disappointment, but I’ll never forget how many people we had there,’’ Knowlton told The Post. “Saturday we’ll have next to nobody. We had a band and partied all night after the race. People in the press came. They said, ‘Oh my, what would’ve happened if they won?’ ”
Sackatoga gets another chance with Tiz the Law, a New York-bred who won two distinguished Triple Crown preps, the Holy Bull and Florida Derby in the COVID-19-altered horse racing schedule.
“It’s the old adage — lightning striking twice,’’ Knowlton said. “After Funny Cide, I didn’t have any expectation of having a horse I could put in the same sentence as Funny Cide. We buy one horse a year. We have four in our stable. I never thought we’d have a horse this good again.’’
Knowlton, 73, is back in the Triple Crown hunt, but may not be back in person at Belmont Park. Gov. Cuomo hasn’t given permission for owners to be present in what is the first leg of the Triple Crown instead of the final. New York Racing Association has requested exceptions.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to go yet,’’ Knowlton said. “Hopefully that will change prior to Saturday to allow us to be there. There’s a tremendous amount of box seats to social distance.’’
Sackatoga got its name from Knowlton. He took their hometown of Sackets Harbor and combined the name with Saratoga, where he lives.
There are now 32 investors — most from New York State but some as far away as California and Texas. Knowlton and Lew Titterton are the only two left from the original gang of high school friends out of the Watertown area. Its colors are maroon and silver.
“Jack became an instant celebrity,’’ said Ed Mitzen, who joined Sackatoga in 2006 and is charged with marketing for new investors. “We haven’t had a lot of horses from the Saratoga area that had been that famous.”
Tiz the Law was born in Twin Creeks Farm in Columbia County, near Albany. Knowlton likes to compare Tiz the Law to Funny Cide in that both horses are first-crop sires.
Tiz the Law’s father is Constitution, lightly raced after an injury (Funny Cide’s sire was Distorted Humor).
Knowlton bought Tiz the Law at the Fasig-Tipton New York-bred sale in Saratoga in 2018 for $110,000 after a recommendation by New York trainer Barclay Tagg.
“I didn’t think I had another bid left in me,’’ Knowlton said. “We got lucky. The first-crop sire nobody knows yet if [Constitution] would be any good or not.’’
Tiz the Law has been real good — winning four of his five starts, earning $950,000. He crushed his debut last summer at Saratoga, winning by 4 ¹/₄ lengths, then captured the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes at Belmont.
After capturing the Florida Derby on March 28 before no fans, the colt couldn’t head to the Belmont as it was still not accepting any new horses to the barns. Tiz the Law, the 5-7 top choice, stayed in Florida, arriving only nine days ago.
Additionally, the postponement of the Triple Crown series has Tiz the Law coming off a long layoff. He put in his final work at Belmont on Sunday morning, timed at :50.42 for four furlongs.
“He’s worked out well and done well after longer layoffs,’’ Mitzen said. “But no one knows what’s going to happen. The whole schedule has been turned upside down. It’s exciting if we can give everyone good news and something to cheer about at a time when there’s not a lot to cheer about.’’
Knowlton thinks his colt has the stamina to win Belmont’s distance of 1 ½ miles, but he’ll never find out. With the restructuring, the Belmont has been shaved to 1 ¹/₈ miles.
If he can’t attend the race, Knowlton will gather with many of the other owners and friends at a Saratoga Springs restaurant, Pennell’s, owned by a Sackatoga investor, Bruce Cerone
“If we have to stay back and hang in Saratoga, there’s no better place to watch a race,’’ Mitzen said.
Knowlton and Mitzen hope to bring Tiz the Law to the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5. Funny Cide is living the good life as a 20-year-old icon on a nearby Kentucky farm. The New York-bred retired at age 7, his last race, ceremonial, at Finger Lakes.
Knowlton visits Funny Cide every year before the Derby. Maybe this time Knowlton can tell Funny Cide he finally won the Belmont.