Year later, Tagg glad to see spotlight trained elsewhere

May 14, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

AFTER IT WAS all over - the Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Breeders' Cup Classic - and Funny Cide had morphed from lightly regarded Derby entry to Triple Crown threat to lung-impaired question mark, Barclay Tagg allowed himself one small luxury.

If you can call it that.

"We took three days off. It was in December. We went to the Bahamas, drank a little rum," Tagg said by phone from his barn at Belmont Park the other day.

Heaven forbid that the 66-year-old trainer who started out grubbing for horses in Maryland 33 years ago should fully enjoy anything in his glass-is-half-empty life.

"I was on the phone the whole time," he said, checking on his horses.

It will be a while before Tagg takes another vacation.

When the phone call went out this week for a pre-Preakness interview, Tagg was not exactly thrilled. What a surprise.

What's the big deal, me coming back to Maryland, he wonders? I've come back before. So what if it's the scene of Funny Cide's victory one year ago, the 9 3/4 -length romp that stirred the imagination for the Belmont. Tagg, in the role of crabby trainer, co-starred in that made-for-TV production.

As it turns out, Tagg pulled the plug on Funny Cide's appearance in today's Pimlico Special. It's too hot, especially for a falling-star Derby winner whose respiratory problems Tagg won't use an excuse for a monstrous defeat at Santa Anita in the Breeders' Cup Classic last October, but it's an issue.

Besides, one gets the feeling Tagg would not mind skipping any venue that invokes any of the nutty atmosphere that swirled around the Funny Cide crew last year.

It was hard to tell what bothered him more - all the attention, or Funny Cide's heart-wrenching inability to hold off a fully firing Empire Maker down the stretch in the Belmont.

The Triple Crown was lost, but that didn't stop the marketing arm of Sackatoga Stables from cranking into super high gear: Funny Cide T-shirts, the Funny Cide chardonnay, the Funny Cide book. Tagg was the old barn that the Funny Cide tornado could not uproot and send into the stratosphere.

"It was very interesting. It was the culmination of a lot of years of hard work. It's a great reward. But there are other owners who expect you to be there, other races, other horses. All that doesn't stop," said Tagg, recalling the Triple Crown season that maybe now he'll concede was slightly better than a root canal.

Now it's back to normal. The same hard training of thoroughbreds for $85 per horse per day. The same unglamorous work, without the cameras and microphones.

Even up until he withdrew Funny Cide late yesterday, Tagg was again looking to slip into Baltimore at the last minute, under the radar. That would have been bliss: Funny Cide and Tagg as afterthought to this year's horse of the people, Smarty Jones.

When the Pennsylvania-bred colt won the Derby two weeks ago, Tagg tried to get in touch with Smarty Jones' trainer, John Servis. The Philadelphia-based Servis and Tagg are friends. Congratulations were in order, but not advice from one underdog journeyman trainer to another.

"I don't give advice. Advice is cheap. He hasn't done anything wrong yet," Tagg said.

Tagg thinks that Smarty Jones, like Funny Cide, proves that plenty of horses with good genes are being bred, widening the pool of potential stakes winners.

"A champion horse can come from anywhere. It makes me happy as hell to see that. It's what makes the game go," he said.

If he felt under the gun last year for coaxing two terrific races out of Funny Cide, Tagg has more work cut out this season. Funny Cide's star faded after last year's Preakness.

After losing the Belmont, respiratory issues forced a scratch from the Travers - a major disappointment for fans at Saratoga. Later, Funny Cide's trip to the Breeders' Cup Classic turned into a smoky disgrace, thanks to forest fires and a poor trip around Santa Anita.

The Classic prompted some racing insiders, including renowned handicapper Andrew Beyer, to ponder if the marketing of Funny Cide was a greater phenomenon than the horse's actual talent.

"The one who needs to prove himself is Andy Beyer. He'd knock Aunt Jemima," Tagg harrumphed. "Andy and I are friends, but he's a typical gambler. They have a different view from real horsemen. Everything's black and white. If a horse loses, he's a flash in the pan. There could be a multitude of reasons why a horse doesn't win.

"Funny Cide has only been off the board twice. He's won $2 million. He won the last time he raced in New York."

The $500,000 Pimlico Special would have been a good test for Funny Cide, as well as a chance to quiet the critics. Southern Image and Dynever are stout competition. Maybe Funny Cide will make a bid sometime down the road to reclaim some of his glory, or risk forever being tagged a two-race wonder.

As for Tagg, he doesn't need more tests. He's withstood the test of time - those 15 long years in the trenches "going nowhere and working my butt off" at Pimlico and Laurel, starting with that first horse, Tudor's Fancy.

Now, Tagg can be a little selective with the horses he trains. Some new owners have come calling on Tagg since the Derby and Preakness wins. Some old owners who left have come back.

"Some I wouldn't have back," Tagg said.

Look up the word "irascible" in Webster's and there's bound to be a picture of Barclay Tagg. In a world full of self-aggrandizing self-promoters, Tagg stands as firm as a fence post. And about as expressive.

At least he's honest and consistent. It's what makes him a respected horseman. Everything else really doesn't matter - to him.

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