While there are many great trainers plying their trade in the modern game, there’s nothing like watching a couple of old school horsemen hone-in on a target and have them ready to run the race of their lives.
Consider how Barclay Tagg won a Kentucky Derby with a then unfashionable New York-bred named Funny Cide. And consider how John Shirreffs won 21 straight with Zenyatta at the highest level before losing her career finale by a diminishing neck to a male champion in the dark at Churchill Downs.
That done, it’s permissible to wonder what a horseman has to do to get the kind and goodly number of horses necessary to gain admission into thoroughbred racing’s pantheon on Union Avenue in Saratoga Springs, NY.
The surmise is that these days only a strike rate somewhere north of 20% will have owners with checkbook in hand come knockin’ on the door of a racing stable’s office.
Tagg, 82, born in Pennsylvania and based in New York, and Shirreffs, 75, born in Kansas and based in California, are not those big percentage guys. They’re about horses, not stats, yet each stands poised to win the Kentucky Derby a second time.
That should do should satisfy Hall of Fame nominators for at least for one of them after Saturday’s event.
As we painfully have learned this week, this is the toughest of all games for dreamers. What mistake did Tom Drury Jr. make, after all? His horse was absolutely perfect in the 2020 run-up to Derby.
Instead, the trainer of the colt that likely would have been the second favorite for this year’s running will be watching this slice of Americana on TV, Art Collector munching away safely inside his stall.
And while several horses could enter the conversation, who was training any better than King Guillermo coming into America’s Race? Tiz the Law or Honor A P or Thousand Words? There is no correct answer in a jump ball scenario.
So now we are left with octogenarian vs.septuagenarian, East Coast vs. West, favorite vs. second choice, trained by men who never failed to hit their mark all year.
Tagg targeted three major events, including this year’s opening leg of a re-imagined Triple Crown, and he won them all.
Shirreffs had two races circled on his colt’s three-year-old dance card; the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby. One down; one to go?
Tagg trains the shortest-priced early line Derby favorite since 1989 but New York’s Easy Goer was no match for the second favorite from California, Sunday Silence. Will history repeat?
Thus far in 2020, no one has been able to withstand the onrushing power of Tiz the Law, never got a chance to look him in the eye. Got it and gone, every time. That will happen today, at least for a time when they line up in the gate right next door.
That’s the storyline that moves me and a thousand others, but the Derby is made of hundreds of stories, one more compelling than the next. It’s what the legendary Red Smith loved so much about this game.
A possible look into how our favorite story-line might end:
Most concede that the strength of Derby 146 will break from the four outermost stalls in a single starting gate that places no one at a disadvantage.
From the outside in, Authentic, who is the fastest early on and trained by a man seeking to put his name right alongside Ben Jones as the Kentucky Derby winningest trainer, must break like a shot under racing’s smartest rider, Johnny Velazquez.
Johnny’s job will be trying to avoid getting hung out on by a jam created by Ny who breaks to his inside three stalls over who will also leave quickly beneath the ever-aggressive Paco Lopez. It will be his plan to leave and tuck in if possible.
Johnny will go on with in an effort to gain the lead and save a little ground while staying off the fence and trying to dictate from about the 3-lane, legally intimidating those to his inside and outside.
Manny Franco, whose confidence in Tiz the Law should compensate for the pressure cooker built in to riding the odds-on favorite to win the Kentucky Derby must also break to avoid any intimidation that might be applied by Authentic as he attempts to drop over.
Break, then sit comfortably on the outside throughout. Ride the best horse like the best horse, and just keep him in the clear. Give him every chance and an excuse free journey.
At the head of the lane, we expect that Tiz the Law will be attempting to take control of the race, daring anyone to come and catch him. Doubtlessly some will be making their run at him. The best one of those is Shirreffs’ long striding colt.
Assuming trouble free trips by all, it’s not as if Honor A P will be coming from last. The colt did break maiden on the lead first time going two turns in his second career start. Mike Smith will use the power that lies beneath, not allowing ‘Tiz’ to intimidate.
Since no one has been able to hold Tiz the Law at headstretch, it is here when Smith sets Honor A P down, looking to cut down on the leader’s margin as the twin spires loom closer and closer still.
In the final strides, Tiz the Law will be reaching out for the wire as Honor A. P. reaches out for Tiz the Law. And as they hit the wire, the winner is …
And that’s why horses run in races between fences. All I can promise is that I will play the Derby to turn out this way:
I will key Tiz the Law with Honor A.P. and Authentic. Below them, and between them, will come Ny Traffic, Thousand Words and Max Player, and below and between them will come Enforceable, Money Moves, Solo Volante and Attachment Rate.
America’s Race has a scheduled post of 7 pm. In this most challenging year in the modern life of the world, may all the horses and riders on this and every day have a safe and speedy journey. And to all those who may be gathered outside the gates of Churchill Downs, peace.