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.”