By Ed McNamara
When writing about the distant past, a favorite phrase of historians is “We really don’t know.” Amid a worldwide pandemic, that also applies to the immediate future.
All we know now is that the Kentucky Derby has been postponed until the first Saturday in September, and even that is very tentative. Beyond Saturday’s $750,000 Florida Derby (G1), there are no signposts.
“Thinking a whole lot past this weekend is very likely to give you a pretty strong headache,” said trainer Michael Trombetta, who will challenge 6-5 favorite Tiz the Law (post 7 of 12) with talented but erratic Independence Hall (9-2, post 9).
Two months ago, Trombetta figured that Independence Hall’s wacky prerace antics would be his main worry this spring. How little we know.
The absence of fans may soothe the crowd-phobic Independence Hall. “I’m estimating there will be about 40 spectators there Saturday,” Trombetta said, “so it will be pretty quiet. So that should help me.”
When almost all the news is bad, try to get into what’s good.
Todd Pletcher will saddle Gouverneur Morris (8-1) and Fountain of Youth runner-up Candy Tycoon (20-1) as he tries to win Gulfstream’s 1 1/8-mile Derby prep for the sixth time. The future Hall of Famer would love to upset Tiz the Law, but in the big picture …
“There are bigger things going on than horse racing,” Pletcher said. “Juggling horse schedules seems like unimportant stuff considering what’s going on in the rest of the world.”
Three years ago, Pletcher hit the Florida Derby-Kentucky Derby double with Always Dreaming. That had been the long-range fantasy of Tiz the Law’s lead owner. “But then the world changed,” Jack Knowlton said. He had looked forward to hosting “60 or 70” partners, family members and friends at Gulfstream. Now he may end up watching on TV at his condo a mile from the track.
Tiz the Law couldn’t look much better on paper. The New York-bred colt is 3-for-4 lifetime for trainer Barclay Tagg, including a three-length win Feb. 1 in Gulfstream’s 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull Stakes. Finishing second was Florida Derby rival Ete Indien (4-1, post 12). That was Tiz the Law’s 3-year-old debut and he hasn’t raced since, which was the strategy.
“Barclay did a great job preparing him for the Holy Bull,” Knowlton said, “and in that race he went beyond expectations. To win like he did was very rewarding for us, and it validated the fact that he should be one of the ones in the starting gate on the first Saturday in September.”
Like every other owner and trainer, Knowlton wishes he could be saying May. A September Derby field undoubtedly would be far different than one on May 2. Horses peaking in April could fade as late bloomers become stars. As Pletcher said, “For a horse, four months is a very long time.”
Knowlton sees the Florida Derby as an opportunity for Tiz the Law to add to his reputation and his Derby points. If he finishes first (100 points) or second (40), he’s sure to qualify for Sept. 5. That is, if he’s healthy, in top form and the Derby is staged that day. It’s all open-ended, like closure for coronavirus, whenever that may be.
“There is no game plan beyond Saturday,” Knowlton said. “I don’t think anybody has any idea what the landscape will be like after the [May 2] Arkansas Derby.”
The only logical move is to focus on the very near future and the Florida Derby past performances.
I doubt that anybody can beat Tiz the Law if he’s himself, and he hasn’t run a bad one yet. Ete Indien is a clear second choice off his wire-to-wire, 8½-length runaway Feb. 29 in Gulfstream’s 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth. Florent Geroux stole the race by gunning immediately from the outside post. He and trainer Patrick Biancone will be forced to use the same tactics from post 12, but it should be much harder to pull off against a better field.
As Seen On TV (12-1), sprinter Shivaree (30-1) and Independence Hall also could go for the lead, which could stress Ete Indien. Tiz the Law likes to stalk and fire big late, and he could sit the perfect trip for Manny Franco. Looking for a price horse to be second? Consider the closer Ajaaweed, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s last runner before he retires to become rider Luis Saez’s agent.
The picks: 1. Tiz the Law 2. Ajaaweed 3. Ete Indien 4. Independence Hall
|1. As Seen On TV||12/1|
|3. Disc Jockey||20/1|
|5. Gouverneur Morris||8/1|
|7. Tiz the Law||6/5|
|8. My First Grammy||50/1|
|9. Independence Hall||9/2|
|10. Candy Tycoon||20/1|
|11. Sassy But Smart||50/1|
|12. Ete Indien||4/1|
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.