ELMONT, N.Y. - When all Barclay Tagg had was bad horses, he'd climb up on the roof of Barn 8 on the Pimlico Race Course backstretch, all the way to the peak, and watch the Preakness.
He watched Secretariat from there. He watched several Preaknesses in the 1970s from that lofty perch for the downtrodden. Even today, three decades later, he says with a knowing glint in his eye: "It was a fabulous place to watch the Preakness."
In three days, he'll have a different view, that of trainer of the only horse with a chance to win the Triple Crown. Eleven days ago, he won the Kentucky Derby on his first try with a New York-bred gelding named Funny Cide.
And this will be his first try in the Preakness, an unexpected homecoming for a strict, old-fashioned horseman who shuns the spotlight but craves success, whose hardheaded nature kept him in business when a weaker man would have quit.
A trim, young-looking 65, Tagg trained horses in Maryland for 30 years. Most of that time, he struggled. He finally left in January 2002 and transferred his stable to New York.
He went in search of richer purses. He found the path to glory; he won the Kentucky Derby.
"I don't feel as if I didn't deserve it," he said. "I grubbed in the trenches for 32 years."
Tagg's life and career have been self-made. His father worked as a manufacturer of truck and bus mufflers. But Tagg was drawn to horses. He rode his bicycle to a stable near home in Abington, Pa.
"I didn't have any money," he said. "They let me work there so I could keep riding without paying."
He graduated from Penn State with a degree in animal husbandry, managed a farm in Unionville, Pa., rode timber races as an amateur and steeplechase races as a professional and started training horses in 1971. He nearly starved doing it.
"I'd go into restaurants with no money, hoping someone would drop a roll on the floor," he said. "I did it all the wrong way. I just kind of jumped into it. It took forever."
He trained at Maryland tracks, wherever the racing lords found stalls for him. Whichever track was racing, it was usually someplace else.
Down to a couple of horses with none on the horizon, he went to work for trainer Frank Whiteley Jr. in 1973 and 1974. Whiteley happened to have a 2-year-old filly named Ruffian, and Tagg galloped her in South Carolina during the winter.
Ruffian became probably the best filly who ever raced. Tagg remembers the feeling when she won her first race at Belmont Park by 15 lengths, equaling the track record. He longed to feel that again.
"I always wanted to play at the highest level," he said. "This is the first kind of limelight horse I've had in a while. Thank God, I finally got one."
The Kentucky Derby crossed Tagg's mind in 1985 after he saddled Roo Art to victory in his first four races. But Tagg clashed with the horse's owners, who kept violating a Tagg commandment by telling him over the telephone how to train their horse.
He eventually told them to take the horse and give it to D. Wayne Lukas, a far more aggressive trainer. They did, and everyone slept better.
Tagg's resume pre-Funny Cide featured two Grade I victories: Miss Josh in the Gamely Handicap in 1991 at Hollywood Park, and Royal Mountain Inn in the Man o' War Stakes in 1994 at Belmont. Both were turf stakes and helped establish Tagg's reputation as a turf trainer.
He came by it accidentally. He had a bunch of ordinary horses, and out of desperation as much as anything he started dropping them into turf races. Some relished the change and won, making Tagg look darned clever.
But the lows have far outnumbered the highs. Throughout the buildup to the Triple Crown series, as Funny Cide began looking more and more like a Derby contender, Tagg kept mentioning that he was a pessimist.
You arrive at the barn at 4:30 a.m., and a horse who was perfectly sound the night before has crippled himself in his stall, he said. A horse your owners have looked forward to seeing run this weekend has sprained an ankle, and now you have to break the news. Or worse, you have to tell them their horse is dead.
Tagg recalls a horse he trained in the early 1990s, "a little trouper," in his words. The horse broke a leg in a race, and Tagg joined him for the ride in the horse ambulance. Tagg knew the horse would soon be euthanized.
But the horse's ears were pricked, his eyes eager to comply. He seemed to be saying: "OK. What do we do now?"
Tagg has considered getting out of the business. All he does is work, seven days a week. In 32 years, he has taken three vacations. But he persevered because he enjoyed what he did better than anything else he could think of doing.
When he bought Funny Cide for $75,000 for a fun-loving group of his owners, he hoped the New York-bred gelding would at least earn enough to cover the purchase price. That was the pessimist in him.