03/28/2013 2:45PM

Jay Hovdey: Tagg looks down Kentucky Derby trail again

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Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Barclay Tagg aboard Funny Cide in 2008.

Ten years ago Barclay Tagg was accused of showing dangerous signs of Kentucky Derby fever for having the gall to publicly suggest that a New York-bred gelding who had never won in open company and had lost every start as a 3-year-old still had the right stuff to be a contender on the first Saturday in May.

That Barclay, what a kidder.

Turns out Tagg was right, and then some. Funny Cide, the gelding in question, won the 2003 Kentucky Derby and the Preakness before finishing third in the Belmont Stakes, while taking both the game and his blue-collar Sackatoga Stable owners on a wild Triple Crown ride.

“It was a great time,” Tagg said this week, while on the road in Florida. “We’ve come close a couple times since. I just wish we could do it again.”

To that end, Tagg will send out Charles Fipke’s homebred Indy’s Illusion against heavyweights Orb, Itsmyluckyday, and Shanghai Bobby on Saturday in the $1 million Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. On paper, it might appear that Tagg is bringing a slingshot to a gunfight – Indy’s Illusion is 1 for 6 with two seconds and a third – but the trainer has seen enough from the colt to believe there’s a good horse in there trying to get out.

[DERBY WATCH: Top 20 Kentucky Derby contenders with odds and video]

“He doesn’t show me some of the things I’d like to see just yet,” Tagg said. “But fortunately I’ve been able to get six races in him already. There’s one thing I always have in the back of my mind: 3-year-olds change so much between January and June of their 3-year-old year. Sometimes dramatically. You see horses jump up and win the Belmont that weren’t even ready to run in the Derby. Look at Northern Dancer, a May 27 foal. He was essentially a 2-year-old when he won the Derby and the Preakness.”

Indy’s Illusion won a maiden race in the Saratoga mud last summer, beating Florida Derby entrant Frac Daddy in the process. After that the Tagg colt split the field in a strung-out Remsen, finishing a distant fifth with Overanalyze, Normandy Invasion, and Delhomme clustered together at the line. The fact that those three have yet to distinguish themselves as 3-year-olds has poisoned the Remsen as a key race, so maybe it’s just as well Indy’s Illusion declined to take it seriously.

“I was very disappointed in that Remsen race of his,” Tagg said. “He ran terrible, really, just never got into it at all. In one way he’s kind of laid-back, but he can also be nervous. He just hasn’t quite figured out what we want of him yet. Even though he’s raced six times he doesn’t know why.

“But in his behalf, he’s a lovely mover, and he’s a long, narrow horse, built like a sharp knife,” Tagg added. “I’ve gotten to like him, he just doesn’t give me the feeling he’s a powerhouse colt yet, which you need to be for the Triple Crown. But every day he changes in the right direction, and you see a different 3-year-old stepping forward every week.”

Through the first four months of 2003 there was no real unifying Derby theme, other than the fact Bobby Frankel was loaded with Empire Maker and Peace Rules. Funny Cide never ducked a tough race but never quite broke out of the crowd. He finished fifth in the Holy Bull, third to Peace Rules in the Louisiana Derby (moved to second on a DQ), and then was a close second to Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial.

“The press was beating me to death about him being just a sprinter, or a miler at best,” recalled Tagg, who read way too many newspapers for his own good. “But he just showed me so much in the morning. He was so powerful, nice and sound, and extremely fast, too. We never had much doubt he was a mile-and-a-quarter horse. But you can’t convince people of that. You just have to do it. He sure peaked at the right time, I’ll tell you that.”

Empire Maker went favored in the Derby to Funny Cide’s 12-1, but at the line it was Funny Cide by a length and three-quarters over Empire Maker. Peace Rules finished third.

For most trainers, their days with a Derby winner are numbered from the moment they enter the Churchill Downs winner’s enclosure. Tagg, on the other hand, was able to enjoy Funny Cide as a racehorse until the summer of 2007, when he went out a winner in a stakes for New York-breds at Finger Lakes. It was a long way from the glory of Derby Day, but as far as Tagg was concerned Funny Cide was still the one and only.

“He was pretty unique, that horse,” Tagg said. “Really something else. I saw him last fall at the Kentucky Horse Park, and he’s got it pretty nice there in the Hall of Champions. He looks a picture, maybe a little bit fat, but they put a muzzle on him sometimes to keep him from hogging too much. There’s a lot going there, too, which is great for him because he loves to just stand and stare. He can hear a camera click a hundred yards away.”

Funny Cide was Tagg’s first Kentucky Derby starter, which was amazing enough, and winning the race put him on a list some of America’s greatest trainers have never made, including Allen Jerkens, Ron McAnally, Frank Whiteley, Bobby Frankel, John Nerud, Elliott Burch, Richard Mandella, Bill Mott, and Bob Wheeler. This year, Hall of Famers Shug McGaughey (Orb) and Jerry Hollendorfer (Hear the Ghost), as well as the respected veteran Eddie Plesa (Itsmyluckyday) appear ready to break through. Tagg says more power to them.

“It’s kind of an exciting time,” Tagg said. “I’m just glad to have one that’s shown potential. It might be he’s just not ready to do it all this spring and he’ll be a Travers horse. I don’t know, but at least we’ll know a lot more on Saturday.”

Delrene Sims More than 1 year ago
Thank you for this article on Barclay Tagg and Funny Cide - It was a fabulous Run for the Roses . I'm so glad he is fat and happy at KHP. Loving life and being enjoyed by the many visitors. Good luck this year , Mr. Tagg.
daniel More than 1 year ago
Good luck, Barclay and Robin.
cobey dumbravo More than 1 year ago
I used to groom for Mr Tagg at Laurel Park in the late 90's while I attended The University of Maryland. He is one of the most astute horsemen I have ever met. I agree with all of the previous posts about Barclay. I wish him nothing but the best of luck. He is old school, the only trainer that had as nice a shedrow is D. Wayne Lucas.
soroka More than 1 year ago
You know what ? One more major horse really should make Barclay a strong HOF candidate. Quite a few G 1 winner's over the year's.
John Nicoletti More than 1 year ago
Mr. Tagg, is right out of the old school of horse training. The horse comes first, and a very humble man. Good stuff.
iknownothing114 More than 1 year ago
Funny cide would have won the Belmont if it weren't for the dump exercise rider / girl friend, the gusty gelding ran off with her in 56:4 for 5f. Three day's b4 the race , the only way he gets back to his old maryland form he got to get rid of the exercise rider,
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Robin has been with Mr Tagg many years they work as a team please don't stir the pot . I wish he would have a better Saratoga. Age did not bother Woody. J beau
Sam More than 1 year ago
Yeh, lay off the girl friend stuff. If you go there with Tagg, you can go there with 50% of the other trainers.
robert More than 1 year ago
The breeding can't get better for Indy's Illusion: by AP Indy out of a Mr. P mare. It doesn't sound like he's ready for Gr. 1 company yet, but I like the way this one improved at 2 and now at 3.
Sam More than 1 year ago
You can find royally bred colts all over the O/C $40,000 races. Some sold at sales for close to a 1/2 mil or more.
JoyJackson21 More than 1 year ago
A very nice article on Barclay Tagg. What a fabulous picture you have of Funny Cide accompanying the article. They both had a magical year that year on the Triple Crown trail. It's wonderful to hear that Funny Cide is living a happy life in retirement. He brought a lot of joie de vivre to racing and deserves a happy ending. I hope Mr. Tagg gets another shot someday again at the brass ring. The thrill ride that the Derby/Triple Crown chase provides is sure to make you want to experience it more than once in a lifetime. Good luck in the future, Mr. Tagg.
Chris Lowe More than 1 year ago
I was lucky enough to see Funny Cide's last race in person. I felt mixed emotions that,although he went out a winner, a short time before his finale, the horses he faced that day would not have been in his zip code.
JoyJackson21 More than 1 year ago
I'm happy you got a chance to see Funny Cide in person, Chris. It's always a thrill to see a champion live, even when they are in the twilight of their careers. You never forget that thrill, either. Being in the presence of greatness is always, always memorable. Funny Cide was a fine champion.
Billy Spathanas More than 1 year ago
I enjoy reading all of your comments JoyJackson.....
JoyJackson21 More than 1 year ago
Thank you, Billy. Your compliment has made my day. Have a great weekend!
Eric Rickard More than 1 year ago
Good for him. I believe the It's My Lucky Day is a standout. We shall see on Saturday.
Gunner More than 1 year ago
With all due respect, didn't MacKenzie Miller win the Derby with SEA HERO?
richard cowles More than 1 year ago
No...jerry bailey did.
JayHovdey More than 1 year ago
Gunner -- Yes he did and is my face red, especially since I have a treasured photo standing with Miller in front of a portrait of... SEA HERO! Doh!
Sam More than 1 year ago
Blame the copy writer.
Sam More than 1 year ago
You also have company. Richard cowls also doesn't know.
Gunner More than 1 year ago
Like I've never made a mistake, thanks.