02/21/2008 12:00AM

An education in the classics for Tagg

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Five years ago, trainer Barclay Tagg won the Kentucky Derby with Funny Cide. Two years ago, he took another swing at the race with Showing Up. He then came back last year with Nobiz Like Shobiz. Before then, Tagg never focused on the Derby, believing he had square pegs for that round hole.

"I was always looking for a classic horse," Tagg said Tuesday morning at Gulfstream Park, "but I didn't think I had one until Funny Cide."

Funny Cide had finished second in the Wood Memorial to Derby favorite Empire Maker before winning the Derby. Showing Up won the Lexington Stakes in his final start before the Derby, while Nobiz Like Shobiz won the Wood. For Tagg to go to the Derby, his horses have to earn it. They're not barbarically forced into servitude. And this year, for the fourth time in six seasons, Tagg again finds himself with a chance to return to the Derby.

His barns in south Florida - here at Gulfstream Park, and 45 minutes north at the Palm Meadows training center - house several prospects, most notably Tale of Ekati, who last year won the Belmont Futurity and was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But while Tale of Ekati awaits his 3-year-old debut in next month's Louisiana Derby, Tagg will see if recent maiden winner Elysium Fields can step up to compete with the elite of the division when he runs on Sunday in the Grade 2, $350,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Elysium Fields and Tale of Ekati join Big Truck, the second-place finisher in last Saturday's Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, as Tagg's best Derby hopes. They strengthen a deep overall lineup for Tagg that includes Nobiz Like Shobiz, Showing Up, and the turf filly Bit of Whimsy. And for good measure, Funny Cide is still around at Gulfstream Park, plying his trade as a stable pony. He's the only Kentucky Derby winner still at a racetrack.

Elysium Fields, bred and owned by Robert Evans, was second in his first two starts last fall at Laurel, finished third at Calder on Dec. 29, then finally broke through in his fourth start against maidens with a runaway, eight-length victory at Gulfstream on Jan. 19. He added blinkers for that race, but Tagg thinks it is too simplistic to ascribe the improvement of Elysium Fields to that alone.

"He had never run a bad race," Tagg said. "I put the blinkers on him because I felt like he needed a little more focus. I don't like to cover them up too soon. They don't learn a whole lot with blinkers, how to tolerate having other horses around them. So I like to wait a few races. You never know. Anything can happen with 3-year-olds. You use your best judgment, what you're learned over 40 years.

"This horse, he's a nice, big horse. I didn't know how much quality he had. When you don't break your maiden your first two times at Laurel, you get a little suspicious. He really relaxed nicely in his last race. He's a lovely, lovely horse. He couldn't be any nicer."

And even though Elysium Fields is going from a maiden win into a stakes race against some of the best 3-year-olds on the East Coast, "I couldn't see denying him the chance," Tagg said.

Elysium Fields, by El Prado, is a bay colt with almost no marks, save for a small star on his forehead. Although he had worked quickly on Monday, he was quite snippy in his stall Tuesday at Gulfstream, acting like a sharp horse eager to compete.

Tagg will do his best to keep his Derby prospects separated. Tale of Ekati will race at Fair Grounds. He had been training at Gulfstream, but was moved to Palm Meadows, where "he's doing super," Tagg said. "He didn't seem to like this track down here, so why run him on it?"

Big Truck likely will return to Tampa Bay Downs for next month's Tampa Bay Derby, Tagg said.

"I don't know if he's Kentucky Derby material," Tagg said. "But he's a lovely, lovely horse and a good, beautiful mover. The Tampa Bay Derby makes sense. He shipped there, ran well, handled everything. To go somewhere else seems counterproductive."

Tagg's grass horses are being kept in reserve, but their time is growing near. Although Showing Up "is on the shelf again with a different ligament injury," Tagg said, Nobiz Like Shobiz and Bit of Whimsy are expected to make their first starts of the year in April at Keeneland. Nobiz Like Shobiz had a strong season on turf following the Kentucky Derby, and will remain on grass this year.

"I'd like to win a couple of Grade 1's on turf with him," he said. "That would enhance his stud value. He's already a Grade 1 winner on dirt. I think he's best suited to a mile or a mile and a sixteenth."

As usual, Tagg is seeking the perfect fit.