Tagg looks back on an opportunity lost

Funny Cide's trainer felt `absolutely terrible'

Horse Racing

June 09, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. - Barclay Tagg never stopped working through the Triple Crown.

He wouldn't meet with reporters until 10:30 each morning, explaining that he had other horses besides Funny Cide to train, that he couldn't take time from them just because Funny Cide was going for the Triple Crown.

Yesterday, with the Triple Crown trek over, Tagg spent his morning at Belmont Park's Barn 6 as usual - working. He couldn't understand how reporters could have any more questions for him, and he showed little tolerance for them.

Between sets of horses going to the track for training, Tagg met briefly with reporters - grudgingly. Here was the former Maryland trainer, now the latest trainer to see his horse's bid for a Triple Crown vanish in the Belmont, looking back from the vantage point of the morning after.

Funny Cide faded to third on a sloppy track, and still Belmont patrons cheered him loudly. They booed the winner, Empire Maker, who had upset another Triple Crown bid.

"I felt just absolutely terrible for all the people who've been behind me so much and been behind this horse - not to be able to do it," Tagg said. "But what can you do? Really, all you can do is get them there. At least we got him to all three races. A lot of them didn't."

Asked how his initial foray into Triple Crown territory had been, Tagg said: "Wonderful. It's been wonderful - except yesterday."

Robin Smullen is Tagg's companion, assistant and Funny Cide's exercise rider. She expanded on Tagg's statements.

"He takes it upon his shoulders to please the world," Smullen said. "So he was disappointed he couldn't please the world. But we accomplished a lot. I'm so proud of the horse for what he's accomplished."

Funny Cide, an unheralded New York-bred, became an equine celebrity by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. In the Belmont on Saturday at Belmont Park, he ran into a sloppy racing surface he didn't like, according to jockey Jose Santos, Tagg and Smullen. Smullen said that's the reason Funny Cide didn't relax and submit to Santos' strong hold.

"The lack of settling was because he couldn't handle the track," Smullen said. "When he isn't comfortable with something, he doesn't settle."

Smullen knows that from her daily gallops with the powerful, headstrong gelding. She also knows Funny Cide relaxes better behind a horse. In the Belmont, no horse wanted the lead. Funny Cide inherited it even though no one in his camp wanted him to have it.

Smullen said she looks forward to a rematch with Empire Maker. That will apparently come in the Travers on Aug. 23 at Saratoga Race Course. She and Bobby Frankel, trainer of Empire Maker, said the Travers is the objective. They both said they expect big things from their horses.

Frankel said Empire Maker is still gangly and light. When he grows up and matures, the trainer said, he could become a great horse.

"I look at him like a kid in high school who grows 2 inches in six months," Frankel said. "He hasn't developed. He's not there yet."

Frankel said his schedule for Empire Maker includes the Jim Dandy Stakes and Travers, both at Saratoga, and then the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Jerry Bailey, jockey of Empire Maker, stopped by Frankel's barn to feed the colt carrots. Bailey continued in his role as one of Empire Maker's most enthusiastic cheerleaders.

"You won't have to ask me anything by the end of the year," Bailey said. "He'll do all the talking."

Bailey said he had always ranked the noise at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby as the loudest in horse racing. But the crowd's roar as he turned for home on Empire Maker in the Belmont was the loudest he had heard, Bailey said.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "I'd have to say it might have even topped Churchill Downs."

Bailey also noted the boos that engulfed him as he, Empire Maker and Frankel converged on the winner's circle. He said he hoped the boos were more the result of disappointment over Funny Cide's loss than of disdain for Empire Maker's win.

Smullen also used the word "unbelievable" to describe the crowd's thunderous ovations for Funny Cide when he stepped onto the track, pranced in the post parade and returned to the saddling area after his defeat.

"It doesn't get any better than that," Smullen said. "Everybody was so behind him. Everybody loves him."

She noted that the scorecard between Empire Maker and Funny Cide reads two wins for Empire Maker (Wood Memorial Stakes and Belmont) and one for Funny Cide (Kentucky Derby).

"Empire Maker is bred to be a champion, and he might become one of greatest sires in the world," Smullen said. "But we've beaten him, and we beat him in the biggest race in the world."

She said she expects Empire Maker to be retired to stud at the end of this year, when he's merely 3. But the plan calls for Funny Cide, a gelding, to continue racing for years. The top horses seem always to retire early because they're worth more as stallions and broodmares.

"Down the road, he's going to be one of the best geldings that's ever been," Smullen said of Funny Cide.

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