Monday, May 5, 2003

Derby winner's trainer is just a 'modest guy'



By RICK BOZICH
The Louisville Courier-Journal

PHOTO GALLERY

Photos of Kentucky Derby
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The funny side of this Kentucky Derby story is that all winter trainer Barclay Tagg kept making a list of reasons why he shouldn't bring his horse, Funny Cide, to Churchill Downs.

The Kentucky Derby?

Please. That's for the trainers who work for Saudi princes, guys who collect Eclipse Awards like hotel shampoo, guys who pose for photo spreads in Gentleman's Quarterly.

Gentleman's Quarterly doesn't write about balding, 65-year-old horsemen who wash their clothes at the neighborhood laundromat - or guys who have not trained a Grade I stakes winner since 1993.

Please. No matter how sharply Funny Cide trained in south Florida last winter, all Tagg talked about was directing the horse to the spot where the gelding belonged - a series of summer races for New York-breds that carries a $1 million bonus if you win all three. His ego is not super-sized.

It wasn't until Funny Cide finished second by a half-length to Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial April 12 that Tagg committed 100 percent to bringing a horse to a Triple Crown race for the first time in his solid, but hardly spectacular, 32-year training career.

"I figured if Empire Maker was as good as they say he is, my horse must be pretty good, too," Tagg said. "Basically, I couldn't justify NOT bringing him to the Derby."

That's Barclay, as much "the glass is half empty" as a guy can be.

Don't believe him? Tagg made the largest "the glass is half full" statement of his life Saturday. He bet $200 on Funny Cide to win the Derby.

"In all the years I've trained, I haven't bet on one of my horses more than five times," said Tagg, reaching into his pocket for the uncashed ticket. "I don't think I've ever bet more than $10 or $20. Never."

Today that ticket is worth $2,760 - and Tagg is no longer just an ex-steeplechase jockey wondering why more owners won't send horses to his public stable. He's the guy whose horse, Funny Cide, outran the more glamorous runners from the stables of Bobby Frankel, Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas to win the 129th Kentucky Derby. Beat the favorite, Frankel's Empire Maker, by 1 3/4 lengths.

"When you've trained two Grade I winners in 32 years, you don't see yourself winning the Kentucky Derby," said Tagg, his sad eyes finally dancing.

No, you don't. But Tagg did this his way, not the way others told him to win the Derby. Funny Cide did his final training at Belmont Park, where he had won three times as a 2-year-old. He raced three times this year, finishing fifth, third and second, but only a combined 10 1/2 lengths behind the winners. His Beyer Speed Figure in the Wood was the second fastest of any Derby contender at 1 1/8 miles.

So Tagg called his friend, Churchill-based trainer Tony Reinstedler, and asked whether he could use one stall the last four days of Derby Week. Reinstedler is based in Barn 48, far from the backstretch chaos. Reinstedler rearranged his horses, saving a spot for Funny Cide in stall six, sandwiching the visitor between two older, more mature horses.

Still, Tagg worried. He always worries. His first three nights in town, Tagg made three late-night drives to Barn 48. First at 9 p.m., then at 10. and finally at 1 a.m. on Derby Eve.

"I'm not as successful as Wayne Lukas, Bobby Frankel or those other guys," Tagg said. "I wish I was. But I'm not. I'm just a guy."

A guy who showed you don't need connections to a Saudi prince to win the Kentucky Derby.




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