Monday, May 5, 2003

Trainer hopes to run Funny Cide into his twilight years

The Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Those who thought Saturday's 129th Kentucky Derby would come down to a couple of stallions ended up with egg on their faces, Funny Cide up.

Going into the Derby, many believed Empire Maker could be the kind of star racing desperately needs - a marquee horse with a world-renowned owner, trainer and jockey. But after Funny Cide defeated Empire Maker by 1 3/4 lengths, talk switched: Maybe the New York-bred gelding is really the kind of star racing needs.

One thing is for sure: Funny Cide won't be whisked away to a stud career as a 4-year-old like the past four Derby winners: Charismatic (1999), Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), Monarchos (2001) and War Emblem (2002).

"I'm hoping I can run him until he's 9 years old, like they did John Henry, and win the Santa Anita Handicap," trainer Barclay Tagg said. "Maybe I can fox-hunt him in my twilight years."

"There's a horse people can really latch onto," said Ron Ellis, trainer of the well-bred fourth-place finisher Atswhatimtalknbout. "You take a horse like mine, who is by A.P. Indy. If he wins the Derby, he goes the Fusaichi Pegasus route. As soon as he gets beat, he's retired.

"It is good to have a gelding. There are a lot of geldings over the years who have caught the public fancy. You take the Foregos, John Henrys. Those are the ones who wind up being kind of legendary because they hang around."

The win by the 10-person, three-horse Sackatoga Stable - which includes a retired math teacher and an optician - also shows that ordinary Joes can compete against the likes of Saudi princes (Empire Maker's owner Khalid Abdullah), tuna magnates (third-place Peace Rules owner Edmund Gann), billionaires and movie moguls (fourth-place Atswhatimtalknbout's majority owner B. Wayne Hughes and Steven Spielberg et al.).

"It's a great draw for the game, to show anybody could do it," Ellis said. "That's a dream thing for them. You get some big people like the Hollywood people who have had so much success in their lives. It's certainly going to mean a little bit less for them than it does to some high school friends who throw some money together. That's their end all."

And in a race increasingly dominated by the mega-stables - with D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert winning six of the previous eight Derbys - the outcome also showed there still is a place for a low-profile trainer. Although Tagg is well-respected, he had won only two previous Grade I races. His stable ranges from about 25 horses during the winter to 40 in the summer after 2-year-olds come in.

"It just goes to show that a good 3-year-old can pop up anywhere," said Jeff Mullins, trainer of Idaho-raised Buddy Gil, the sixth-place finisher and a fellow gelding.

Tagg's only moments of concern was when Funny Cide, the first New York-bred to win the Derby, became agitated on the walk from the backside. He calmed down in the paddock, however.

Tagg actually was happy that Funny Cide, ridden by Jose Santos, broke a little slowly.

"He runs best if he breaks a little slow and you can just let him alone, and he works his way up to the front a little closer," he said. "He was pretty calm and cool, even with the mob of horses and all the people yelling when they come down the stretch the first time. But fortunately everything kept opening up in front of him.

"You just couldn't ask for a better trip, and that's what you need in the Kentucky Derby."

One thing did not go according to script. Tagg said he received a gift bag Friday from Churchill Downs with a Derby jacket, a Louisville Slugger bat with Funny Cide's name on it and a bottle of Woodford Reserve.

"I locked it up in the trunk of the car, and we went home to change clothes," he said. "And when we came back in, why the SWAT team or whatever they had there (for backside security) searched the car and took the bottle of whiskey. He said, 'You can't bring that in here.' I said, 'It came from in here. They gave it to me.'

"He said they locked it up in the cabinet there. But we've gone back there three times, and nobody can find it. They all said, 'It's not Churchill Downs, it's the state.' Well, what's the state care whether you bring whiskey in or out? What difference does it make? They're all drinking it over here anyway."

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