Tagging Along for the Ride

Times Staff Writer

When Barclay Tagg started training horses in Maryland, about 30 years ago, Pimlico Race Course promised him stalls, but on condition that the Anheuser-Busch Clydesdales could bump him out of his space.

Sure enough, the brewery’s big draft horses were eventually sent to Baltimore for a promotional appearance. The Clydesdales moved into his barn and Tagg’s horses were shuttled to nearby Timonium, a five-eighths-mile bullring in the suburbs that runs a third-rate 10-day meet once a year.

“The racing secretary in Maryland, a guy named Larry Abbundi, really shoved me around,” Tagg recalled the other day at Belmont Park. “He treated me badly. He was a tough guy, and I don’t think it was me, it was just Abbundi’s nature. If Abbundi had been a horse, he would have just stood in his stall, biting himself.”


The 65-year-old Tagg, a former steeplechase rider, is encroaching on racing history, saddling a horse that could sweep the Triple Crown for the first time since Affirmed’s Kentucky Derby-Preakness-Belmont Stakes blitz in 1978. If Funny Cide wins Saturday’s Belmont, he will earn a $5-million Triple Crown bonus, besides the purse money, and will make Tagg, for the first time in his knockabout life, a rich man.

Even before the Preakness, Tagg realized that it had finally quit raining on his parade. The most purse money his stable had ever earned was $1.5 million, in 1999, and most of that, of course, went to the horse owners who paid the training bills.

“It’s a game of hope,” Tagg said, “and I’ve been hoping for 30 years. [The Derby] made me feel like the last 30 years were finally worth the grind.”

Then after Funny Cide had won the Preakness, another $1-million race, it finally registered with Tagg what heights he has reached. He was driving from Belmont Park, where he’d moved his base of operations in 2002, back down to Maryland last week, and during the four-hour trip he finally contemplated where he had been and where he might be going.

But back at Belmont Park a day later, Tagg was jolted with an immediate reminder of the bad old days. He asked Mike Lakow, the racing secretary at the track, for four extra stalls to accommodate new horses that had come in. Lakow gave him three stalls.

“Mike’s a good guy,” Tagg said. “He’s the best racing secretary in the country, and I’m not just saying that because I’m stabled here now. But he still only gave me three stalls, instead of the four.”

But then, Tagg complains a lot. His own jockey, Jose Santos, who has ridden Funny Cide in all eight of his races, has called him a grouch. Bobby Frankel, who trains Empire Maker, the second-place finisher in the Derby and a colt who beat Funny Cide in the Wood Memorial, is not known as Mr. Sunshine himself. But he appears to be enjoying the spoiler’s role while Tagg keeps the media at arm’s length, virtually barricading Funny Cide’s barn and giving guarded interviews that sometimes can turn into contentious exercises.

“I’m not trying to be rude,” Tagg said. “I’m just trying to protect the horse. I’m here to win the next race, and I’m not going to lose sight of that. This is no circus horse. If you want a circus horse, go to the circus.”

Ask Tagg about Roo Art, one of the few good horses to come his way before he bought Funny Cide for $75,000 last year as an unraced 2-year-old, and he may wave off the question with, “I’ve been telling that story for 25 years.” One day he’ll tell the Roo Art story, another day he’s bored with discussing the horse. In a nutshell, the Roo Art story is that Tagg, over some disagreement, told the owners of the horse to remove him from his barn. With trainer Wayne Lukas, Roo Art won major New York races, such as the 1986 Suburban Handicap.

“It was nice to see Roo Art go on and do well,” Tagg said a few weeks ago. “But, of course, he cost me a lot of money too.”

The media onslaught will hit Tagg between the eyes this week, but his drill-sergeant, hard-line approach is not expected to soften.

“From noon Friday until Sunday morning,” he announced last weekend, “no one’s going to be allowed at my barn. No one. The only way anybody’s going to get in here is with a badge that says they work for Barclay Tagg.”

Tagg said later that the restriction would include Cot Campbell, manager of Dogwood Stable, winner of the 1990 Preakness and an owner who has eight horses in Tagg’s care.

By contrast, reporters can walk into Frankel’s barn area, chat with him in his stable office and stand next to Empire Maker while he’s being washed down by his handlers.

Richard Migliore, a New York jockey who couldn’t beat Funny Cide with Kissin Saint in the Preakness, smiles when Tagg’s name is brought up.

“He’s different,” Migliore said. “But I don’t think that will have anything to do with the way Funny Cide runs on Saturday.”

Tagg avoided much media scrutiny at the Derby and Preakness, shipping Funny Cide to Churchill Downs only three days before the race, then secretly vanning the gelding from Belmont to Pimlico about 24 hours ahead of time.

After retiring as a steeplechase jockey, Tagg worked for a year for Frank Whiteley, a Hall of Fame trainer whose champions included Damascus, Forego, Ruffian and Tom Rolfe. Whiteley was a dedicated horseman, but an intensely private man who treated reporters with contempt.

Tagg remembers galloping the filly Ruffian for Whiteley when she was a 2-year-old, in 1974.

“Ruffian would scare you to death,” Tagg said. “She was hard to hold, even as a young horse. Underneath you, she felt like a 5-year-old handicap horse instead of a filly.”

Funny Cide also is a forceful horse, a horse with his own mind mornings at the track. Tagg, who gallops Funny Cide the wrong way -- or clockwise -- to get him to slow down, is fortunate to have Robin Smullen as the horse’s exercise rider.

“She’s got the finesse to do it just right,” Tagg said. “She’s a total horsewoman. Owners have a tendency not to give female trainers that much of a chance, but Robin could run a big-time stable of her own if she got the opportunity.”

Smullen, 40, was showing horses when she was 4 and worked in a barn next to Tagg’s in Maryland when he asked her out to dinner six years ago. They have been together ever since, the last five years working alongside one another at Tagg’s barns. There was a year’s gap before Smullen came aboard while she fretted that romance and racing might be an explosive mix.

“Barclay is an absolute perfectionist,” said Smullen, when asked to list Tagg’s strongest suits. “He pays an incredible amount of attention to detail, and demands that everyone around the barn adhere to a strict schedule. This is a 24/7 operation. When the horses are scheduled to be fed at 4:30 [in the afternoon], he says that that doesn’t mean 4:25 or 4:45, or any other time. It means 4:30, and that’s it. He’s also so attentive to his horses that he prevents problems before they occur. He knows a horse is sore before he really gets sore, and does what’s needed in the way of treatment. All of this really pays off.”

The only time Tagg and the 10-man syndicate that races Funny Cide had a disagreement was when the owners suggested running the horse in a stake race at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, last year. Funny Cide was battling a lung infection and Tagg said that shipping him to Texas would be a mistake.

“You just couldn’t send a horse in his condition to a hot, humid environment,” Tagg said. “I explained this [to the owners] and they understood.”

Tagg may be putting pressure on himself by building a wall between the hordes of photographers and reporters and Funny Cide as the Belmont approaches, but he insists that he won’t be overwhelmed by the enormousness of the occasion.

“I can remember having a couple of kids in college, being down to one horse and dead broke, and vanning that horse [from Maryland] to Penn National in the snow for the last race on the card,” he said. “And wondering the whole trip if the van is going to get there. Then huddling under a blanket along a bitter-cold shedrow, hoping that they won’t take the race off the grass. Now that’s my idea of pressure.”