Archive for Sunday, June 8, 2003

Tagg: ‘I’ve had worse disappointments’

June 8, 2003

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— Everything else was soaked.

The racetrack, the railbirds, the dream. His felt hat. The shoulders of his trenchcoat. The tear-stained faces on every side of him.

But underneath that brim, Barclay Tagg's eyes were dry. As dry, anyway, as the win tickets on Empire Maker being turned in at the betting windows just a few yards away, beneath the covered grandstands.

"I've had worse disappointments," Tagg said, without breaking stride on his way back to the barns to catch up with Funny Cide. "But this is a big one."

Losing is nothing new to any thoroughbred trainer, let alone one who's spent nearly all of his 30 years in the racket scuffling for decent horses. But they don't get any bigger than this one. At stake was a Triple Crown, a $5 million bonus piled on top of a $600,000 purse, and racing's version of immortality.

Still, there was no way to know that from the expression frozen on Tagg's face.

"I don't know if it was the mud or the extra quarter-mile that got him. I don't know whether he liked it," he said, his voice trailing off. "I never had to run him in it."

For the first two legs of the triple, Funny Cide looked like not just the "people's champion," but fate's favorite son.

Funny Cide was the last horse on the grounds at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, arriving just three days before the race. At the time, insiders wondered whether Tagg was crazy or cheap.

But the New York-bred chestnut gelding ran a near-perfect race en route to becoming the first horse since Bold Forbes in 1976 to capture a Derby without a practice run on the famed Louisville track. Jockey Jose Santos asked for an extra gear to rebuff two late challenges, and Funny Cide kicked it up a notch without looking as if he was working.

Suddenly, Tagg looked like a genius.

At the Preakness, Funny Cide showed up earlier than Tagg had promised but still never set foot on Pimlico's oval until the start of the race. No matter.

Funny Cide played with the field long enough to amuse himself, then felt the sting of Santos' whip and pulled away to win by almost 10 lengths.

The move was so breathtaking, the horse, trainer and jockey so dialed in, the everyman owners so funny, that there was very little room left on the bandwagon by the time Tagg pointed the circus toward New York and the Belmont.

For all but the last few weeks of his career, Tagg never thought seriously about the Triple Crown. His place in the sport was much closer to the survival level than the top. He worked seven days a week and went on three vacations during his entire career, yet by age 65 he still never seemed to make up ground.

But suddenly it was easy to indulge the fantasy. After all, his horse had won the first two legs in imposing style and the third test was being run at Funny Cide's home base, where he was 3-for-3.

The storyline and personalities invited comparison to the saga of Seabiscuit, the thoroughbred who stirred America's imagination in the 1930s and the subject of a recent book and soon-to-be-released movie. And at times, Tagg seemed to be auditioning for the role of grouchy trainer.

The rigors of the Triple Crown went against everything Tagg believed. Three races at different distances in five weeks spelled disaster for a developing 3-year-old horse.

He cringed at the concept of the Triple, no matter how steeped in tradition, and just like Tom Smith, Seabiscuit's real trainer, he shunned the spotlight and did anything he could to shield the horse.

"I feel bad for all the people who wanted us to win," Tagg said.

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