Barclay Tagg: Profile of Funny Cide's Trainer

Published in the May 10 issue of The Blood-Horse
In the minutes following Funny Cide's victory in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), his trainer squinted into the sun, looking up the track for a glimpse of his horse. Standing alone on the track just after earning the greatest achievement in his profession, Barclay Tagg began to fret. The 15 other horses had returned, been unsaddled, and were making their way to the backside, but there was no Funny Cide.

"Why hasn't he come back?" Tagg wondered aloud.

The winning connections had made their way to the winner's circle in the infield, joined by a multitude of security types, television crews, and hangers-on. Tagg peered through his binoculars, concerned. Someone stepped up, pointed out his horse walking on the turf course heading for the winner's circle and his blanket of roses. "Nobody told me," he said. He then stepped through the gap in the fence onto the turf and into Derby immortality.

Forgive him the naïveté. Even though he has "spent a lot of long hours, long days, and long nights," Tagg was glaring into the bright light between the Twin Spires in early May for the first time.

"I've been following the Derby since 1953 when Native Dancer ran in it," Tagg said. "That was the first year we had a television."

A lifetime of horses and hard work, not sitting in front of the television, preceded Tagg's 2:01.19 of fame on May 3.

Born on Dec. 30, 1937, in Lancaster, Pa., Tagg's family moved to Abington, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, in his youth, where he graduated from Abington High in 1956 and in 1961 from Penn State University. Tagg got involved with horses when he was managing a farm in Pennsylvania in 1963. He became deeply ensconced in the tradition-rich Pennsylvania hunt country, riding show horses, fox hunting, and riding in steeplechase races for Pennsylvania-based trainers Jonathan Sheppard, "Pop" Dickson, and Burly Cocks.

A need for steadier income turned him to training. Once he began working with Thoroughbreds near the end of 1971, he was on the lower rung of the Mid-Atlantic circuit. Lacking quality stock, he attempted to turn horses around by moving them to the grass. The seeds of his pre-Derby reputation were sown.

"I've never had tremendously wealthy people and I guess I wasn't much of a salesman," he said of his early training days. "I'd start running horses on grass--it was an outlet for horses that couldn't do much on the main track."

The stakes-winning Highland Springs tantalized Tagg with a taste of the good life in the late 1980s. "I ran him for $6,500 before I put him on the grass; then he won and won," Tagg said. Highland Springs earned $403,579 while winning four stakes for Bonner Young's Bonner Farm. In the 1989 Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), Highland Springs fought his way to the front in the stretch. "I could taste that $1 million at the eighth pole," Tagg said, "but (jockey) Kent Desormeaux dropped his stick at the sixteenth pole." Highland Springs finished seventh, beaten just 21?4 lengths.

It was then too, he said, he also fell in love with Florida. The following year, he switched from the Maryland circuit to the New York/Florida circuit. He currently lives in an apartment near Belmont Park in Floral Park, N.Y., most of the year and owns a townhouse near Gulfstream Park in Florida, and a little cottage in Howard County, Md.

"It'd cost the same amount of money in Maryland as it did in New York," he said. "Some trainers can do it for $50 a day, but I can't do that. Don't get me wrong, Maryland was good to me."

The Preakness Stakes (gr. I) should be more familiar territory for Tagg, as his once 60-horse Maryland stable was split between Pimlico and Laurel.

Despite starting with less than stellar stock, Tagg's consistency, patience, and pragmatism have polished his star over the years. He's trained 38 stakes winners, including grade I winners Miss Josh and Royal Mountain Inn and the multiple stakes-winning New York-bred Social Retiree.

His philosophy with 2-year-olds set up the New York-bred Funny Cide for his Derby run. "I've found with 2-year-olds it's best to get the easiest races you can," he said. "These New York-bred races were big money races and they were easy for him. We were getting experience without killing him."

That experience came into play in the final quarter-mile of the world's most important horse race. "I've been around a lot of horses but every now and then one will really, really stand out. I would have stopped at any time I would have had an excuse to."

Tagg is also realistic about Thoroughbred racing and methodical in his approach.

"I've been at this 32 years, every day, and I worked with horses before that. I don't golf. I don't bowl. I don't do much of anything else," Tagg said before the Derby. In the post-race interview, he offered more detail.

"It's a very difficult game," he said. "I've had a lot of highs, but I've had more lows. Everybody does.

"You think you have a big, fat, shiny, good-looking horse that's working beautifully and running beautifully and you set him all up for something like this and any day you walk in at 5 o'clock in the morning and feel his legs--there's going to be something wrong with them. It's happened to me so many times over the years that you can't let yourself get too high. I'm not a really optimistic kind of person."

Before he moved to New York full-time, Tagg had the reputation of being a "turf" trainer, and a crafty one at that at Saratoga, where his runners were always well backed. "Someone told me at one time I had a 31% win rate," Tagg said.

His method? "I'd leave Maryland at 10 at night and arrive at Saratoga at 6 a.m.," he said. "We'd gallop them, wash them off, and ice 'em till the afternoon." And that was his plan for the Kentucky Derby.

"I don't like to go two weeks before," he said of his shipping strategy while sitting on a sawhorse outside Churchill Downs' Barn 48, Tony Reinstedler's barn, the Thursday before the race. "I've had more luck in my career coming in late for a race. If I could, I'd come on Saturday morning and leave Saturday night."

Sitting beside him, reading the Daily Racing Form, was his partner and exercise rider Robin Smullen. They've been together for six years, but met long before that when she was working for trainer Dr. John R.S. Fisher.

"To come too early would have been a logistical nightmare with three people at Churchill and the rest in New York," he said. "Robin is the only person that can ride the damn horse."

Former jockey Gregg McCarron rode the first horse Tagg sent out as a Thoroughbred trainer at Delaware Park in 1971.

"He's an excellent horseman," McCarron said. "You know when you get on their backs that they're going over there as fit as can be." McCarron said Tagg's Derby victory "was a long time coming. He feels he's as good as anybody."

He is, and has been, as good as anybody--now he's a member of a more select fraternity. It was his contemporaries who were the first to congratulate him after the race. Trainer Patrick Byrne offered his best, and so did four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

"I used to read about you all the time," Tagg said as he shook Lukas' hand. "Now I know what to do."

Those closest to Tagg know his lifetime in the business has taught him that. He just needed the right horse to prove it.