- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

BALTIMORE — Trainer Barclay Tagg remembers the days of bad horses and worse luck.

Those were the days he used to watch the Preakness Stakes from a barn roof that overlooks the far turn. Those were the days when the Triple Crown seemed as far away as a finish line that was barely within sight.

“The guards would yell at you and all that,” Tagg said, “but it was a great place to watch the Preakness.”

Perhaps, but he likely will have a better view this time around.

Tagg returns to Old Hilltop tomorrow with the favored horse, Funny Cide, for the 128th running of the Preakness. Mention of the Kentucky Derby winner brings a slight smile to the face of Tagg, whose dry wit, lean frame and receding hairline resemble those of comedian Bob Newhart. Maybe it’s nervous tension because the smile doesn’t last long.

Tagg isn’t simply a glass-half-empty pessimist — he expects the remaining half will soon be gone, too. A career of tough breaks made him extremely wary and conservative. Accusations that Funny Cide jockey Jose Santos cheated in the Derby — later found to be baseless — didn’t shock Tagg. He’s always expecting the worse.

“There are so many pitfalls in this business,” Tagg said. “Every day you get up you find something wrong. It numbs you after awhile.”

Tagg isn’t a high-profile trainer like D. Wayne Lukas or Bob Baffert. He has won only seven of 56 races this year for $1.3million. His 1,014 career victories for $22.8million average out to an annual haul of 31 wins worth $713,758.

Tagg gave few interviews before the recent run that suddenly made him racing’s hottest conditioner. He is enjoying the spotlight because, at 65, he knows he worked long to get it. However, Tagg is more comfortable in the backstretch than pursuing rich clients.

Tagg’s quiet demeanor is a perfect fit for Sakatoga Stables, a group of high school friends who have joined the trainer as the trendy new spokesmen for an industry fueled more by elitists than everyday people. Sakatoga managing partner Jack Knowlton met Tagg during a morning workout in Saratoga when Tagg was watching Knowlton’s horse. There wasn’t much eye contact, just sporadic banter while Tagg was working.

The low-key manner didn’t bother Knowlton, whose group then owned two horses and wasn’t in a position to hire a Lukas or Baffert. Knowlton cashed enough winners on Tagg shippers to know the level of Tagg’s ability. Tagg trains 20 to 40 horses, so he’s often looking for new clients after moving to New York last year. The man who once booted stakes winner Roo Art from his barn because the owner was difficult to handle doesn’t mind working with small clients as well.

“We know a lot of people around the racetrack that work on the backside,” Knowlton said. “We asked opinions about who might be a good fit for us as a trainer. We heard [Taggs] name a number of times.”

Said Tagg: “They just called me up one day and asked if I would talk to them. They called myself and one other trainer. They left him a message, and he never called them back. I’ve got to go thank that guy.”

Tagg long has been known in Maryland as a sound horseman with a knack for turf runners and scoring with a 10-1 shot off the van. Royal Mountain and Crab Grass were standout grass champions, which wasn’t surprising given Tagg’s five-year career as a steeplechase rider before he converted to flat tracks for fear of starving with the “jumpers.”

“Barclay’s a complete horseman,” said former Pimlico general manager Chick Lang. “He’s an ex-jumping rider, and one thing those guys can do is send out a winner over distance.”

Tagg’s failed riding career resulted in his becoming an assistant trainer in New York, where he exercised a 2-year-old filly named Ruffian in 1974. She went on to become one of the leading fillies in decades before dying in a 1975 match race against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.

“She was very strong even as a 2-year-old,” Tagg said. “She felt like a 5-year-old handicap horse.”

Steeplechase horsemen are patient. The conservative approach aided Tagg during the Triple Crown preps when he resisted Knowlton’s desire to race in Texas. Funny Cide was bothered by a lung infection, and Tagg awaited the Louisiana Derby on March3. The gelding ran a late third that set up the narrow Wood Memorial loss on April12 before Funny Cide took the Derby.

Tagg considered skipping the Derby to await the New York-bred triple crown during the summer. He was half kidding, but the owners didn’t know it.

“They all just sat there and looked at me,” Tagg said. “They didn’t say a word.”

Perhaps the most startling part of Funny Cide’s Derby victory was Tagg’s $200 win wager that returned $2,740. He has been a $2 player at best over his career.

“I don’t know why I did it,” he said. “I never bet. I just felt good about it.”

Tagg will watch the Preakness from the owner’s section near the finish line. Maryland trainers openly cheer Tagg, even over the three local runners entered in the Preakness. After all, he’s still considered a local.

“Maryland was good to me,” he said. “I had a lot of successes there. A lot of hard work, a lot of growing pains. This is a wonderful thing to happen. It’s nice something good can happen when you’re still around.”

Funny Cide could race for several more years; the gelding has no second career as a stallion. Tagg joked he might return to his steeplechase roots, riding Funny Cide.

“I could fox hunt him in my twilight years,” he said.

You’d think Tagg already has overcome enough hurdles in his life.

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