It’s been 17 years since Funny Cide took Sackatoga Stable, trainer Barclay Tagg, assistant Robin Smullen on a ride of their lives, winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and nearly the Triple Crown. The team is back with another chance to get to the Kentucky Derby with Tiz The Law, favorite for Saturday’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.
Earlier this week, we spoke to Sackatoga’s Jack Knowlton about Tiz The Law, Funny Cide, the Florida Derby and, yes, the coronavirus.
In today’s climate, the first question is an easy one but a necessary one.
This Is Horse Racing: How are things going?
Jack Knowlton: “Barclay’s good. Robin’s good. The horse is good. Now we’re just counting the hours to hopefully keep this race on track and get to run it. It’s beyond anything you can imagine. I just spent an hour listening to Governor Cuomo talking about New York. It’s so frightening. It’s frightening everywhere but New York is the epicenter. It’s not good at all.”
TIHR: Where are you?
Knowlton: “I’m hunkered down about a 15-minute walk from Gulfstream. It’s frustrating that I can’t be there to watch the race. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get along the rail or somewhere around the quarter pole, the other day they had the property fenced off where the old Tiki Bar used to be, you could actually watch a race from outside that fenced-in area. I’m going to have to check that out in the next couple of days to see if they’re going to allow you to be in there or if they’re going to block the entrances. I’m hoping I get to see the stretch run. We’ll see.”
TIHR: How has coronavirus affected you thus far?
Knowlton: “My wife and my 12-year-old grandson flew down last Tuesday from Saratoga. School’s out. We are on no schedule. I was going to fly home Monday but I’m not going to do that. We have no idea when we’re going back. Saratoga County doesn’t seem to have been hit very hard but that could change. I’m in the epicenter of where it’s bad in Florida. There are a lot of things to think about, it doesn’t look like it’s going to get resolved very soon. Not a fun time. Scary time. Two weeks ago when the NBA story broke, then March Madness is canceled, when that happened, you knew this was something way beyond anything that any of us has experienced. The only sport doing anything is racing and we’re limited. At least I’ve been able to watch TVG and bet on my NYRA account. It’s a distraction and that’s good. Who knows how much longer this is going to last. I would not be terribly surprised if Gulfstream shut it down after this weekend. We can look back at the good year we had in 2019 and relish it.”
TIHR: Yes, take us back to the Fasig-Tipton yearling sale at Saratoga.
Knowlton: “What typically happens, Barclay, Robin and I go through the catalog for the New York-bred sale, 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, so we were looking for colts. From that list, there were 30, 40 horses that fit Barclay’s criteria. The biggest thing we’re looking for is on the dam side, dams who are stakes winners or the family are stakes winners. That’s the starting point. Once we see that, they go take a look and winnow it down, sometimes I go with them on the first pass through. They usually have 10 or 12 they like, we look again and decide which ones we’re interested in, then Barclay gets his vet involved and typically we end up with a handful, four, five, six horses who pass the vet. We put a price range on which we think is reasonable and affordable from my standpoint and then we do the sale.”
TIHR: You bought him for $110,000, was that what you expected?
Knowlton: “110 was probably the last bid, I think we had him pegged at 100, fortunately we went that extra 10 thousand. We usually have a couple of tables of partners for dinner at the sale, they’re enthusiastic and we’ll push the envelope a little more, which is a good thing. If I need an extra something, I’ve got a core group of people who have participated and have ownership in the decision.”
TIHR: Where did he go after the sale?
Knowlton: “He goes to Tony Everard the next day. Tony does what he does best, turning them into young racehorses. April, May, when Barclay’s back in New York, Tony turns the horse over to him and the fun begins. I saw him at Belmont a couple of times, but when it began to sink in that we had a pretty nice horse was going over at 6 o’clock in the morning and watching his breezes. Not only did he have fast breezes but the rider just couldn’t pull him up. Junior Alvarado was on him and was very enthusiastic, he was halfway down the backside before he could get him pulled up. That was a very encouraging sign. And then when he won his maiden race the way he did against a pretty good horse. Mike (Repole, owner of runner-up Dream Bigger) and his crew thought that race was in the bag and we made it look easy, even though we had a little trouble during the race. Unfortunately Tiz seems to do well, there hasn’t been a clean race yet. I’m hoping we get one in the Florida Derby.”
TIHR: Take us through the decision to go to the Champagne.
Knowlton: “Barclay and I thought about the Hopeful, but God intervened and he had his little shin issue which precluded that, then 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? I’m a big Beyer Speed Figure and 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. We lost Junior, we totally understood. We picked up Manny (Franco) and despite some anxious moments, the horse showed that he’s good enough to overcome adversity.”
TIHR: Did you ever consider the Breeders’ Cup?
Knowlton: “We wanted to get a race in Kentucky, 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. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a terrible race day, the track was a sea of slop and he got stuck down inside. 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.”
TIHR: We had to look it up, it’s been 17 years since Funny Cide and you’re back.
Knowlton: “It is hard to believe. Never could I imagine that we would be in the position to have a horse that we would consider a Derby horse. Not just a Derby horse, but he’s on just about everybody’s list, he’s one of two or three everybody’s looking at, it’s hard to find any faults with him other than he gets in a little trouble in his races. Here we are, since October when he won the Champagne on everybody’s radar screen, which is 100 percent different than Funny Cide.”
TIHR: Take us back to the build-up with Funny Cide.
Knowlton: “He was under the radar screen until he won the Derby, other than folks around Albany, Mike Kane, Tim Wilkin, who was working aside Matt Graves, Steve Haskin gave him some plaudits but he was not one of those horses anybody was talking about who was likely to win the Derby. He finished second in the Wood, which I thought pointed him out, but anybody who saw that race thought Empire Maker was not only going to win the Derby but was going to win the Triple Crown that year. How do you not think Funny Cide is in with a chance? Here we are with a horse who should have some creditability, but he was a New York-bred, a gelding, it was Barclay Tagg, it was Sackatoga Stable, none of those pointed to a horse who could win the Kentucky Derby. Nobody thought he could.”
TIHR: This is very different.
Knowlton: “Barclay’s been there and he has won it, and everybody knows what kind of horseman he is, we proved that a New York-bred can win. Before Funny Cide, nobody gave any thought to a New York-bred could win the Derby. But we’ve been there, people are taking this horse seriously and I think they should.”
TIHR: What did you learn with Funny Cide?
Knowlton: “For me, personally, the biggest thing is dealing with the media and trying to say or do stupid things. That experience has so far served me well here. What is so different today is social media. Now, everything that is said, every interview, every conversation is out there. I try to focus on trying not to do something that’s going to come back and reflect badly on me, on Barclay, on Sackatoga, on the horse. Barclay and I have a great relationship, we manage to work together, whenever there are issues that come up, we talk about them and make sure we come up with the best decision that can be made. The big decisions are what races are you going to run in and who your jockey is going to be, after that, it’s his show. We are along for the ride.”
TIHR: How different is Sackatoga Stable now?
Knowlton: “Fortunately, I have a lot more partners this time around, there are 31 other people who are involved with some piece of the action. We’re scattered from California to Texas to Florida to Michigan to Delaware to New York to Pennsylvania to Georgia, we are all over the place.”
TIHR: How many of today’s partners were involved with Funny Cide?
Knowlton: “Just Lou Titterton and myself. My two major partners, Gus Williams and Dave Mahan, both passed away many years ago. My five guys from high school, after all the glory of Funny Cide, and the money, wore off, they got lucky, we all got lucky, but it was a lark, six of us threw in $5,000 and bought a New York-bred, eight horses later, we win the Kentucky Derby but they weren’t real Thoroughbred guys. They would come to Saratoga and go to the races, they liked that and we got lucky with Funny Cide when the world turned upside down. For six years, he ran from 2 to 7, that was a great run, we traveled all over the country, it was a great time. But it didn’t last.”
TIHR: After Funny Cide, did you think that was it, your one chance?
Knowlton: “Absolutely, come on, you not only climbed to the top of the mountain, but you climbed to the top of Mount Everest, everybody who has ever wanted to be in this game, everybody who is in this game, you want to win the Kentucky Derby. And we did it. The chances of that happening to us were so remote, and yet, it did happen.”
TIHR: What is your business model?
Knowlton: “We go to the New York-bred sales or buy New York-breds privately, we’re hoping to buy New York-breds who can run in New York-bred stakes, that’s our hope. Quite honestly we haven’t had a great deal of success doing that, we did win a race in 2008, one of the stallion races with a horse named Doc N Roll, that worked out. Just about every horse we’ve had hasn’t won a race. Barclay does a great job, Tony does a great job preparing them, we’ve got our model, this is what we do, it’s who we are, anybody who joins Sackatoga, and it’s just word of mouth, it’s friends of friends, we buy one or two horses a year. Now, hopefully, this year, maybe we buy three of four horses because everybody is pumped up and are happy.”
TIHR: And getting back to the Kentucky Derby…
Knowlton: “The thought of getting back to the Kentucky Derby again, never in my mind, never an aspiration, never an expectation, not really even a hope. Hey, we did it. I love the game, I’m a Saratogian, last year I was at the races 39 out of 40 days. I’ve got a tremendous amount of friends who are part of our group, we’ve got three other horses, unfortunately for some people, they didn’t get into Tiz. I’ve got probably 40 to 50 people who have some portion of one or more of the horses in Sackatoga, it’s become a big social thing for me and my family. My son, although he’s in California, he’s very involved, he’s in every horse for a long time, he and I play the horses together, we’ll play pick fives and all that, remotely. He makes just about all the big races and spends typically a couple of weeks at Saratoga in the summertime, it’s something great for us to bond.”
TIHR: What are you hopes for the Florida Derby?
Knowlton: “I’m hoping the worst case is you’re going to be able to say he’s got enough points to qualify for the Derby. Best case you’re going to be able to say he’s now a multiple Grade 1 stakes winner and likely to be one of the favorites for the real Derby if and when it happens. Well, it will happen.”
TIHR: What are thoughts about a summer and fall plan?
Knowlton: “My biggest concern is I want to run in the Travers. Does it make sense, when will they have the Travers? What’s going to happen with the Haskell? What’s the points race look like? What’s NYRA going to do? I don’t know how NYRA couldn’t back up the Travers to worst case, the Whitney, four weeks before the Kentucky Derby. But who knows? Are they going to make some races? Let’s say they make the Travers the first Saturday in August. We have four months before that race. Where are we going to race? You don’t want to go into that race off a four-month layoff. Do you want to go a mile and a quarter in the Travers and then a mile and a quarter in the Derby? I don’t know. I wish the industry could have come together and formulate a plan. I understand the times we’re in that makes that challenging, but it should have happened.”
TIHR: Unfortunately, that’s the sport…
Knowlton: “That’s the worst part of our sport, we don’t have a commissioner and everybody makes decisions on their self interests. How does this feed into the Breeders’ Cup? There seems to be some sentiment that you run the Preakness two weeks after the Derby in September, then are you going to run in the Belmont three weeks after that? Who’s going to go to the Belmont? Would we go to the Preakness? If the horse was doing great? If he hadn’t had a serious schedule? Which I can’t imagine a serious schedule at this point. In two weeks? Probably. If he’s good enough, hopefully he would be, then you would go to the Breeders’ Cup. Why would you think about the Belmont? Then where do you put the Belmont on the calendar, running a mile and a half race? Who’s going to want to run in that if you’re a serious Derby horse? I can’t imagine. The Breeders’ Cup isn’t going to change, they’re set in stone and probably need to be, even in Kentucky, you don’t want to go much beyond the first week in November. We’ll see. Nothing we can do.”