Those who knew trainer Barclay Tagg before Funny Cide won the 129th Kentucky Derby last Saturday would probably say that winning one of the most prestigious and anticipated races would not change Tagg’s character.
True to form, Tagg remains as down to earth as ever preparing to run the New York-bred gelding in the Preakness Stakes May 17th.
Funny Cide, owned by Sackatoga Stable and Jackson Knowlton, departed Churchill Downs Sunday for Belmont Park, the morning after his triumph in the Derby, but Tagg and assistant Robin Smullen were not scheduled to fly out of Louisville until Monday. Not only did they want to see Funny Cide as soon as possible to make sure he shipped well, but other business matters needed to be taken care of at Belmont as well.
“After we put the horse on the van at Churchill, everything felt kind of anticlimactic,” Tagg said. “Now we’ve got to sit here for 24 hours, thinking about the jillion things we had to do at Belmont. Just then (Maryland Jockey Club President and CEO) Joe DeFrancis came by with a gentleman who had a plane and asked if there was anything they could do for me. Half-jokingly I said, ‘if you have an airplane, you can take me home.’ An hour later we were in the air.”
Tagg’s flight home wrapped up an exhausting month of travel for the 65-year-old former steeplechase rider. Although it is a labor of love, all that traveling can be exhausting for anyone.
“I had horses at Palm Meadows (Florida), horses at Keeneland and horses here,” Tagg said on a spring morning at Belmont as perfect as jockey Jose Santos’ Kentucky Derby ride. “I drove from Gulfstream to Palm Meadows to Ocala to Keeneland, stayed there for a couple days, then drove to my house in Maryland, drove to Fair Hill and back to New York for the Wood Memorial. It was a couple thousand miles at least.”
Winning the Derby is the ultimate goal for almost every horseman, but that feat is even more sensational considering Funny Cide bucked several long-standing trends. No New York bred had ever won the Derby and no gelding had won the race since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. Additionally, the son of Distorted Humor did not arrive at Churchill until the Wednesday before the Derby. Most trainers prefer to arrive earlier and get some work in on the track.
“I didn’t write the script,” Tagg said. “He just happened to be a New York-bred and a gelding and happened to be able to run. It’s fun to listen to the hype and hear everyone say, ‘It’s impossible to do this and it’s impossible to do that’ and go out and do it.”
Tagg had never been to Churchill Downs for the Derby or any other reason, but did not see a need to get there early, thinking a more relaxed environment might be the best thing for Funny Cide. Similarly, when Tagg sends Funny Cide to Pimlico for the Preakness, it will not be until late in the week.
“My job is to win the Preakness with that horse and we can’t make a circus clown out of him to do it,” Tagg said. “This is a very grueling five weeks. There are three major Grade 1 races jammed together and he had already run in three top-class races this year. We’re not trying to be snobs and hide him from the people, but he can’t be disturbed all the time. They can’t get those highs and lows all day every time someone shows up and wants to take a picture. I’m trying to do what I think would be easiest for him. I don’t think going to Pimlico and stabling at the stakes barn for a week would be easy on him.”
Tagg said Funny Cide is scheduled to school in the paddock at Belmont for the third race Saturday to “see a crowd” and could work Tuesday morning. For Tagg, returning to Maryland for the Preakness is somewhat of a homecoming. Tagg spent many years training on the Maryland circuit and owns a home in Woodbine, about 25 miles west of Baltimore. Admittedly, he has not spent much time at his Maryland home in recent years.
“I don’t see it very often,” Tagg said. “It makes a nice retreat if you want to spend a day there. I haven’t had time to sell it.”
Congratulatory colleagues are still making their way by the Tagg barn. Mike Sellito, agent for Santos, delivered a hero sandwich the size of the Derby stretch run for Tagg’s employees Wednesday morning, with the help of trainer Jimmy Jerkens. Tagg and Jimmy’s father, Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, have a relationship that goes back decades. “He can tell you which horse tripped going to the track in 1932,” Tagg said of Jerkens. “He knows the people, he knows the horses and he remembers things that come together and make a plan work.”
Tagg shared the story of Funny Cide acting up in the paddock prior to the Derby with Jerkens. Tagg wished Jerkens was by his side in the Churchill paddock to give reassurance.
“I always thought Funny Cide had plenty of poise, but he fell apart going to the paddock at Churchill,” Tagg said. “As soon as he got into the paddock and walked around a little bit, he settled down.
“That’s when they run the best,” Tagg said, doing a spirited Allen Jerkens imitation. “When they settle down after they realize nothing’s going to happen, they always run good. “Jerkens is a great guy to talk to and a great guy to get opinions from. He’s certainly been successful his whole life. He is a genius.”
Tagg, widely regarded as an excellent horseman, experienced just his third Grade 1 win Saturday in his 30-plus years of training. The fame brought about by a Derby win has changed the trainer little. So maybe he can find a flight on a private jet now whereas a week ago he could not, but those perks have not altered the mild-manner, respectful Tagg.