Although the news came five days after Christmas, it nevertheless had all the bad vibes of a Christmas Eve raid on Whoville staged by the merciless Grinch. On December 30, Saratoga Springs–based Sackatoga Stable announced that its prized Thoroughbred, Tiz the Law, who had won the 2020 Belmont and Travers Stakes—making him a cult hero in the Spa City—had suffered a leg injury and was being forced into early retirement. The injury occurred less than a month before Tiz was slated to begin his 2021 campaign in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park. Sackatoga Managing Partner Jack Knowlton was dreaming big with the New York–bred son of Constitution, and those dreams were shattered in an instant. “It’s sad to have to end it,” says Knowlton. “We certainly had a great run for a year and a half, and all the people in our group had a great time. For me, the Travers was the highlight of his whole career. To win the way he did at my home track, at a classic distance, in a fast time, it was pretty exciting.”
With Tiz sidelined—he’s settling into his new Kentucky home at Ashford Stud as a stallion—locals will have to find new heroes in 2021. And the sport certainly doesn’t lack star power or emerging talent. With Kentucky Derby prospects bound to emerge in the next couple of months and other returning standouts cranking up for a new season, exciting times are ahead. Here are five horses to keep an eye on this year.
Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, this chestnut son of Speightstown had an uneven 3-year-old season in 2020. Bred by Stonestreet Farms and owned by the breeder along with several partners, Charlatan won his first two starts with ridiculous ease. He then crossed the finish line first in a division of the Arkansas Derby but was later disqualified after testing positive for a banned substance. An injury then kept Charlatan on the sidelines for more than seven months. He returned in December to win the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita and looks to be in top form with a target of the world’s richest race, the $20 million Saudi Cup, scheduled for February 20 at King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh, as his 2021 debut.
2. Essential Quality
Bred and owned by the mighty Godolphin operation, this son of Tapit was an easy choice for the Eclipse Award for Champion 2-Year-Old Male in 2020. Essential Quality won all three of his starts as a juvenile, including Grade 1s at Keeneland in the Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Trained by Brad Cox, Essential Quality is the early Derby favorite based on his 2-year-old form. He is expected to begin his season in mid-February in either the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds or the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn.
3. Life Is Good
This son of Into Mischief looks like a prime Derby contender with the same connections as 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify (owners WinStar Farm and China Horse Club, trainer Baffert and jockey Mike Smith). After impressively breaking his maiden in November in his career debut, Life Is Good won his 3-year-old opener in January at Santa Anita with a geared-down victory in the Sham Stakes. Baffert will, as usual, have several contenders on the road to Louisville, but Life Is Good appears to be at the head of the class for the Hall of Fame trainer.
4. Monomoy Girl
One of racing’s best stories of 2020 figures to again garner big headlines this year. After an 18-month absence due to injury, Monomoy Girl returned to the track and her winning ways. The Eclipse Award winner for Champion Older Female last year, Monomoy Girl won all four of her starts as a 5-year-old, including the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Following the Breeders’ Cup, it was expected that she would be retired to broodmare duty when Spendthrift Farm paid a whopping $9.5 million for her, but the farm surprised everyone by announcing that she’d race as a 6-year-old. Trainer Cox couldn’t be more thrilled; in 15 career starts, Monomoy Girl has won 13 times, including six Grade 1s. She is currently in training at Fair Grounds and is expected to make her 2021 debut there on February 15 in the Bayakoa Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
5. Swiss Skydiver
It will be intriguing to see what type of encore Swiss Skydiver is capable of after winning the Eclipse Award for Champion 3-Year-Old Filly in 2020. In an old-school campaign that included starts at nine different tracks, Swiss Skydiver became the first filly to win the Preakness Stakes since Rachel Alexandra in 2009. Her other wins last year included the Alabama Stakes and Santa Anita Oaks. Trainer Ken McPeek is swinging for the fences early in 2021; he has entered Swiss Skydiver in the $20 million Saudi Cup.