Secretariat

Sackatoga Two and the History of NY-Breds

Sackatoga Two and the History of NY-Breds

By Steve Haskin

Tiz the Law, Adam Coglianese Photo

It was a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting: a bunch of ordinary guys, friends since childhood, sitting in a backyard in the tiny town of Sackets Harbor, New York, enjoying a Memorial Day picnic. From that picnic would spring an idea that would have a profound effect on Thoroughbred racing and change the face of the New York breeding program.

One of those ordinary guys was Jack Knowlton, who had moved to Saratoga Springs and was back home visiting his mother. Having dabbled unsuccessfully in owning harness horses he wanted to try his hand at Thoroughbreds. Knowlton liked owning horses more than he liked being around them for the simple reason he was allergic to them.

Having been class president in high school, Knowlton was always the pied-piper type; the leader who his friends would follow. Knowlton’s idea was to purchase a New York-bred Thoroughbred at the Fasig-Tipton Saratoga sales. But even purchasing a New York-bred could run anywhere from $25,000 to $60,000. So Knowlton convinced his five buddies to put up $5,000 each just for the pleasure of owning a racehorse and having some fun. After mulling it over and discussing it with their wives, they decided to join Knowlton in his new adventure and Sackatoga Stable was born. The objective was to take the $30,000 and buy a yearling for $20,000 and keep the remaining $10,000 to pay the bills. In the beginning, that’s all it was…fun.

Several years later, trainer Barclay Tagg and his assistant Robin Smullen spotted a chestnut ridgling by Distorted Humor at Tony Everard’s farm in Ocala, Florida, where Tagg’s yearlings were broken. Everard had purchased the horse for $22,000 at Fasig-Tipton’s New York-bred yearling sale at Saratoga. Tagg and Smullen liked the horse, but Everard was asking $40,000, and they had no buyer at the time. The following spring they saw him again and liked him even more. Everard had upped his price and was asking $75,000 for the now gelded youngster, a bit too steep for the Sackatoga Stable partnership.

On March 6, 2002, however, Sackatoga’s 6-year-old mare, Bail Money, was claimed for $62,500 at Gulfstream Park. With some extra spending money to play with, Knowlton told Tagg, “If you like him that much, go ahead and buy him.”

It were those words that brought Sackatoga Stable into the national spotlight, winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness with that gelding, named Funny Cide, with the Sackatoga gang, including several other friends of Knowlton’s, becoming celebrities, arriving at the track in a yellow school bus because that was all they could afford.

Now, 17 years later, Sackatoga Stable, Jack Knowlton, and Barclay Tagg are back in the national spotlight with another New York-bred, named Tiz the Law, who in a couple of weeks likely will go off as one of the shortest-priced Kentucky Derby favorites of all time. The names are pretty much the same as they were 17 years ago, and the school bus is getting fueled up for its return, as America awaits the next chapter in yet another remarkable Sackatoga Cinderella story. But time does change things, and only one other member of the original Sackatoga team, Lew Titterton, a longtime friend of Knowlton’s from the health care business, is part of the Tiz the Law syndicate.

Titterton was not one of the original Sackets Harbor group who resided there, so the stable is now Sackatoga in name only. The members of that original cast of characters will be missed on this Tiz the Law odyssey. One of the greatest quotes I ever heard was after Funny Cide lost the Belmont Stakes ending the improbable Triple Crown dream. The late Dave Mahan, one of the more recognizable members of the original syndicate, along with the flamboyant Gus Williams, who also has passed away, was a caterer from Connecticut who knew Knowlton from his betting days at Saratoga Racetrack. Following the Belmont, Mahan, with the other members, headed to the Trustees Room to drown their sorrows. He then put everything in proper perspective when he came to a stark realization. “It could be worse,” he said. “I could be back home stuffing chickens.”

Because of horses like Funny Cide, Travers winner Thunder Rumble; the “Sultan of Saratoga,” Fourstardave, who won at least one race at Saratoga for eight straight years; two-time Whitney winner Commentator, and more recently Jockey Club Gold Cup and Whitney winner Diversify, and multiple Grade 1 winner Mind Your Biscuits, who was second in the Met Mile and Whitney, New York-breds no longer are the second-class citizens they used to be, mocked by the racing world as slow, grossly inferior horses.

Some may look at Tiz the Law, who was conceived in Kentucky and raised in Kentucky, as a New York-bred in name only who just happened to be foaled in the Empire State and in no way represents its breeding program. But the truth is breeder Randy Gullatt of Twin Creeks Farm (along with partner Steve Davison) had the New York breeding program in mind all the time when he sent Tiz the Law’s dam Tizfiz to Becky Thomas’ Sequel New York in the Hudson River Valley to drop her Constitution foal. Constitution wasn’t the big-name sire he is today and Tizfiz was a $125,000 purchase who they felt was good value and nicked well with Constitution. They bought the daughter of Tiznow to support their own stallions, mainly Mission Impazible, who stands at Sequel Stallions. They also wanted to take advantage of the New York breeding program. There was nothing fancy about Tizfiz. She was just considered a good solid horse.

After three months in New York, Tizfiz and her foal were sent back to Twin Creeks. The foal immediately made his presence felt. According to Gullatt, he did everything right, learned quickly, and was never sick or injured. He just liked bucking, playing, and squealing and having a good time. Gullatt said he was just a fun horse to be around. Gullatt watched him grow into a strong, professional athlete who they sold at the Saratoga yearling for $110,000, with Sequel acting as agent.

When Tiz the Law ran in the Belmont Stakes, Gullatt saw that distinctive white-rimmed eye of his and remembered seeing that eye every day for a year when he was a baby, and it all hit him emotionally when Tiz the Law drew off to an easy victory. “I literally cried when he won the Belmont,” Gullatt said. “I had never done that before. I just knew him so personally and to see his personality come out on the racetrack was very emotional. The Travers was different. While the Belmont was about emotion, when he won the Travers I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how great is this horse?”

And so for Sackatoga Stable, lightning has struck twice, and from that initial $5,000 investment has come two New York-breds who have combined to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Travers, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Florida Derby, and Champagne Stakes. That is, as they say, the stuff dreams are made of.

New York-breds are no longer scoffed at or frowned upon, and have proven they are championship caliber horses. But it certainly wasn’t like that several decades ago.

The key race mentioned earlier is the Whitney and the success New York-breds have had in this prestigious and historic race. It is only appropriate, because the Whitney was where it all began for the modern-day New York-bred.

It happened 39 years ago when an obscurely bred New York-bred named Fio Rito shocked the racing world by winning Saratoga’s premier event for older horses.

What made this event so important to the New York breeding industry is that it was the first major impact by a New York-bred since the 1973 advent of graded stakes and the creation of the New York State Breeding and Development Fund, which placed New York-breds under a single umbrella and began the state-bred program and purse incentives. Eight years had passed since then and New York-breds were still considered pretty much a joke.

By 1981, there still had not been a New York-bred Grade 1 winner, and success in open company still was a rarity. That is until Aug. 1 of that year when the 6-year-old horse Fio Rito stepped into the gate for the Whitney Handicap. The gray son of the obscure stallion Dreaming Native was trained by Finger Lakes-based Michael Ferraro, ridden by local rider Les Hulet, and owned by bowling alley owner Raymond LeCesse, who had purchased Fio Rito’s dam, Seagret, for a mere $2,300 as a favor to the mare’s owner, who had put her up for auction at a small venue near Rochester, New York.

Fio Rito certainly did not look like a horse who would one day make history, but he began winning on a regular basis at Finger Lakes, with an occasional foray downstate. It was inconceivable that they would consider a race like the Whitney, especially with his ornery disposition. After shipping to Saratoga, he became too excited when a filly was placed in the stall next to him. When they moved him to another stall, he became so agitated he threw a tantrum and wound up bruising his foot. Initially, there was doubt that he would be able to make the race, but he received clearance from the veterinarian.

Carrying only 113 pounds, the 6-year-old gray was sent off at 10-1, as he attempted to become the oldest horse or gelding to win the Whitney since Kelso captured the race at age 8 in 1965 and the oldest complete horse to win the race since Round View in 1949.

Any chance of this Cinderella horse upsetting the Whitney seemed lost when Fio Rito broke through the gate before the start, actually dragging the assistant starter, who was flat on his belly holding on for dear life and refusing to let go of the horse. When he finally got Fio Rito to come to a halt and jumped to his feet, still clinging desperately to the horse, he received an ovation from the crowd.

Fio Rito, under a barrage of right-handed whips from Hulet, dug in the length of stretch and refused to let Rokeby Stable’s top-class Winter’s Tale get by him, winning by a neck.

Not only had a New York-bred won the Whitney, and at age 6, he had run faster than past Whitney winners Dr. Fager, Kelso. Gun Bow, Carry Back, Key to the Mint, and Ancient Title, and had run more than a full second faster than Onion when he upset Secretariat eight years earlier.

It was a jolt to racing purists and the word spread far and wide. Even the Wabia tribesmen of New Guinea were shocked to learn that a New York-bred had won the Grade 1 Whitney.

Fio Rito died in 1996 at age 21 and was buried in the infield at Finger Lakes.

But Fio Rito was not the first New York-bred to elevate himself into top-class company. Well before there was a New York breeding program and New York-bred races with lucrative purses, New York-breds were extremely uncommon. The one rare gem was another Cinderella horse named Mr. Right.

Prior to the mid 1960s, New York-breds were looked upon by racing’s elite as oddities, confined to their own little world made up of inferior horses competing mainly in cheap races. In 1966, however, a horse came along who broke all the rules and made the blue bloods shudder in disbelief. Mr. Right, not only ventured into the world inhabited by major stakes winners and champions, he actually had the audacity to beat them, and on a regular basis.

When this genetic anomaly (by Auditing, out of La Grecque, by Tehran) retired in 1969, he had won nine major stakes races and placed in 10 others, earning a then whopping $667,193. Along the way, he captured such prestigious hundred-granders as the Santa Anita Handicap, Woodward Stakes, Suburban Handicap, and a host of $75,000 and $50,000 stakes, equivalent to grade II and grade III stakes today.

Among his victims were Horse of the Year and Hall of Famer Damascus, Kentucky Derby winner Proud Clarion, Belmont Stakes winner Amberoid, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Quicken Tree, Wood Memorial and Gotham winner and Kentucky Derby third Dike, 2-year-old champion Successor, Widener Handicap winner Ring Twice, Suburban Handicap winner Buffle, Hollywood Derby winner Tumble Wind, and Charles H. Strub Stakes winner Most Host.

La Grecque’s dam, Gay Grecque, had been purchased by New York hotel businessman George Zauderer for $5,000, and she went on to win the Test Stakes and place in several other stakes, including the Alabama. After Zauderer purchased the English stallion Tehran he sent Gay Grecque to England to be bred to him and the resulting foal was La Grecque, who never made it to the races and eventually was sent to Westchester County in New York to be trained in dressage with the intention of competing in horse shows.

But when it was discovered that La Grecque did not have the temperament for such regimented training, Zauderer decided to breed her to Auditing, a stakes-winning son of Count Fleet who stood at Mr. and Mrs. Tom Waller’s Tanrackin Farm in Bedford Hills, New York. Her second foal was an “independent little cuss from the start, standing out there paying no attention to his mother,” according to Zauderer, who considered him his favorite.

In 1964, Zauderer’s daughter Cheray, a Manhattan socialite, married the New York City born Peter Duchin, who was a popular pianist and band leader. As a wedding present, Zauderer gave his daughter and son-in-law his favorite yearling colt, who was a late foal, being born on May 21. That yearling later was named Mr. Right and he would grow up to be a star; a David who slew many a Goliath.

At the time, the New York Racing Association had been paying 10% of the winner’s share to the breeders of winning horses foaled and registered in New York. This was the first move to improve the quality of state-breds and it seemed to be working, as the sums paid out began to increase steadily. But it wasn’t until Mr. Right captured the Dwyer, defeating top-class horses such as Buffle and Amberoid, that NYRA had to pay out a substantial sum of money, which amounted to $5,352 and 75 cents.

Following the Woodward Stakes, Mr. Right was sold by the Duchins for $400,000 to a group headed by Daniel Schwartz, who brought in his attorney Martin Rudin and his neighbor Frank Sinatra as partners.

After spending six months at Flag Is Up Farms in California, Mr. Right returned as a 6-year-old, winning the Suburban Handicap in a gutsy performance, defeating Claiborne Farm’s multiple stakes winner Dike and 1968 Travers winner Chompion in a three-horse photo and then added his third Trenton Handicap later in the year.

That November, Mr. Right was retired sound, but instead of going to Flag Is Up Farms, he was sent to Tartan Farm in Ocala under the management of John Nerud to join Dr. Fager, the horse he helped nail down Horse of the Year honors by defeating his arch rival Damascus.

Years later, he was moved to Kerr Stock Farm in Moreno, California, and finally to the Schoenborn Brothers Farm in Climax, New York. He died at age 16, but no date of his death was ever listed or a cause of death.

For all Fio Rito and Mr. Right did for the New York breeding industry, there isn’t even a stakes named after them. But these tough, courageous horses who defeated champions and Grade 1 winners will forever be regarded as the founding fathers of all the successful New York-breds that followed.

And so here we are, more than a half-century after Mr. Right, with a New York-bred on the verge of superstardom who is two races away from becoming the only horse other than the great Whirlaway to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, and Travers. He still has a tall task ahead of him. But if he should sweep that “Quadruple Crown,” it will be the pinnacle of success for New York-breds and elevate them to heights never before imagined.

Tiz the Law farm photos courtesy of Kim Gullatt