Kentucky Derby

Tagg is plenty serious

After `Funny' success, trainer back with duo

May 03, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN REPORTER

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Barclay Tagg looks like a horseman, an old-fashioned one. He has a care-worn face and wears blue jeans and long-used cowboy boots. His jacket is the color of a dry autumn oak leaf. And the collar is usually turned up, his shoulders hunched against the brisk, early-morning air.

His cool blue eyes are surrounded by worry lines. Or maybe they're laugh lines. Certainly they show up on good and bad days.

For Tagg, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2003 with Funny Cide, one day rolls into another, whether he is here, beneath the twin spires, readying for today's Kentucky Derby, or back in New York or Delaware with his everyday runners.

"Winning the Derby didn't change my life," said the trainer who spent 20 years building his career in Maryland before moving his operation north. "My life, I do the same thing all day every day."

Today, his hopes are on Wood Memorial winner Tale of Ekati, a son of Tale of the Cat, and Tampa Bay Derby winner Big Truck, sired by Hook and Ladder.

Tale of Ekati, whose morning-line odds are 15-1, will break from the No. 2 hole, while Big Truck, in Post 7, is the longest shot in the field at 50-1.

The feeling, Tagg said, between 2003 and today, is quite different. Not because there is any less pressure - in fact, there could be more as a past winner tries to rekindle the magic. But because the horses he has are so different from Funny Cide.

"Funny Cide, I thought he was a Derby horse the first time I breezed him," said Tagg, 70, who still keeps his home in Woodbine, Md. "I said it out loud and I was ostracized for it. All I heard from the media was that he was bred to be a sprinter."

The so-called sprinter went on to win the Derby and the Preakness.

"Now these two, they're very fast and they try hard," he said of his current duo. "Tale of Ekati is tenacious and has a lot of guts, and Big Truck has a lot of early speed. They hustle and give you 50 percent more than you expect - what's that up to, 150 percent? And they'll need all that effort and luck, too."

Tagg hasn't had the luck here of late. In 2006, Showing Up, undefeated with plenty of talent, finished sixth. He was compromised throughout the spring, first by a foot bruise that changed his training schedule and later by a puncture wound that forced him on to antibiotics up to the week before the Derby.

"You know how you feel after you've been on antibiotics," Tagg said. "Not very good, and that was the case with Showing Up."

A year ago, he brought Nobiz Like Showbiz, a brilliantly muscled colt who won the Wood Memorial and gave every indication he could be a factor on Derby day. But Tagg said Nobiz didn't like Churchill's track that day, as it was drying out from heavy rain. The horse came home 10th.

His first thought is always for the horses. Always has been. Now when the quality has improved, and before, when he was based at Timonium and just happy to have a horse to train.

"I simply like horses," he said. "Some trainers don't care about them, but I truly like them and I feel pretty close to them. I go back to the barn at night just to pet them."

Tagg is the son of a farmer, whom he describes as a "romantic," who went to milk his cows every day at 4 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. in another loving repetition.

"My life's pretty much the same as that," Tagg said, as he readied his two horses for a last training session on the Churchill dirt. "I'm here at 4:30 a.m. and 6 p.m."

But there is energy in his every step that belies his age. The routine has made him stronger and made his horses better.

"I never learned to ski or ice skate, and I can't dance," he said. "When all you can do is muck stalls you'd like something good, a little more something good to happen before you die.

"I'd love to win [the Derby] again. It would feel just as good as the first time."

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