Updated on 09/17/2011 10:39AM

Old-school nature hitting new heights

Funny Cide faced only New York-breds as a 2-year-old, as his trainer, Barclay Tagg, resisted the Great State Challenge and Breeders' Cup.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The conservative nature of trainer Barclay Tagg helps explain, in part, why it has taken three decades for the 65-year-old trainer to make his first trip down the Triple Crown trail. That same ideology may also explain why Tagg now stands 12 furlongs away from racing immortality.

Tagg did not presume to think he was buying a classic winner when he plunked down $75,000 for a 2-year-old gelding by Distorted Humor out of the Slewacide mare Belle's Good Cide. But it wasn't long after Tagg began to train the chestnut named Funny Cide that he felt he was potentially dealing with something special.

"He was breezing fast, but he was a big, tall, long, lean narrow type of horse, and those kind can run a distance," said Tagg, who had built a reputation as being successful with marathon turf runners. "He showed me so much talent I thought, well, maybe he could be a classic horse."

After Funny Cide's second race, a nine-length victory in the restricted Bertram F. Bongard Stakes at Belmont on Sept. 29, Tagg received some unsolicited advice to point his horse to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Ultimately, Tagg declined, saying he didn't want to ship Funny Cide, coming off two sprint races, to Arlington Park to run nine furlongs against more seasoned horses.

"There are too many guessing parts of it for me," Tagg said last Oct. 14, the day the deadline passed for Breeders' Cup pre-entries to be made. "I'm looking at hopefully a big year next year."

It doesn't get any bigger than this Saturday and the 135th Belmont Stakes, where before an expected crowd of 120,000 fans, Funny Cide will attempt to become Thoroughbred racing's 12th Triple Crown winner.

Tagg said one of the reasons he purchased Funny Cide in March of 2002 was because he felt the horse would make it to the races early, and his ownership group, Sackatoga Stable, would be able to begin recouping on their large investment.

"If I was looking for a horse for $500,000 or $1 million then I'd be looking for something that's going to mature a little later and be a classic-type horse," Tagg said. "But when you're paying $30,000 to $75,000 for a New York-bred - and that's what I've been looking for for these guys all along is $30,000-to-$75,000-type horses - you're looking for a horse that can run early and give them some action. You're not looking for posterity."

Tagg's hopes of getting Funny Cide to the races early were dashed immediately. When the horse arrived in April, he had sore suspensories - the ligaments that support the ankles - and needed time off. Once Tagg did get him going again, Funny Cide ran off with an exercise rider one morning and bucked his shins, a common 2-year-old infirmity. It took six weeks to get over that.

Tagg felt the best way to bring Funny Cide along was to keep him facing New York-bred company. Tagg's plan was to run Funny Cide three times, and put him away to point for the 2003 classics. Funny Cide's third race was a narrow victory in the Sleepy Hollow Stakes, a race in which Tagg and jockey Jose Santos experimented with getting Funny Cide to come from off the pace.

While Tagg had no problem talking his owners out of the Breeders' Cup, he did receive some pressure from the owners to run in the Great State Challenge, a seven-furlong race featuring invitees from different state breeding programs, run at Sam Houston in Texas in December. The last thing Tagg wanted to do was ship to a different climate while cutting back to seven furlongs. In addition, Funny Cide would not have been eligible for the entire $275,000 purse.

"I said you've got to make a decision, do you want to go to the Texas race and make a quick [$135,000] or do you want to try and make a classic horse out of him?" Tagg said "It's kind of hard to do. Both is overdoing it."

Eighteen years ago, Tagg, now 65, found himself in a similar situation with a horse called Roo Art. Tagg purchased Roo Art for $1,500 for a new client and he won three races in five weeks as a 2-year-old. When Roo Art defeated the previously undefeated I Am the Game in the General George at Laurel in his 3-year-old debut, the pressure began to go to the Derby. Tagg did not think he was a Derby horse.

"He had some little things about him that I just didn't think he was coming up to the Derby right," Tagg said. "He wasn't a muscular horse. He wasn't a big strong horse - he couldn't take being bumped or anything like that. As long as he had his own way he was a pretty good horse, but you don't get your own way in a race like the Derby."

Tagg reluctantly agreed to point the horse to the Preakness, but Roo Art pulled a gluteal muscle in a prep race. Tagg would eventually have a falling-out with the owners in early 1986, and the horse was turned over to trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

Among the trainers Tagg worked with before going out on his own was Frank Whiteley, who trained Ruffian. Tagg was among the riders who galloped Ruffian. Tagg's conservative nature came out when, after Ruffian won her maiden by 15 lengths, Whiteley put her in the Fashion Stakes.

"Why wouldn't you run her in an allowance race?" Tagg asked Whiteley, who, according to Tagg, snapped back, "Why? Does it look like she needs one?"

Said Tagg, "I was always brought up under those conservative-type people who run them through your conditions first."

Tony Cobitz is a racing manager for two groups of owners that have horses with Tagg. Cobitz calls Tagg the "quintessential horseman.

"He's a productive hybrid of good old-school wisdom, and yet at the same he seems to be open to cutting-edge therapies such as the nebulizer they use on Funny Cide."

The nebulizer, which heats distilled water to 104 degrees, helped Funny Cide with a throat problem that cropped up toward the end of his 2-year-old season and lingered into early this year.

Before Cobitz began dealing with Tagg, he said what caught his eye was how well Tagg did in New York with modestly bred horses he had stabled in Maryland.

"He is exceptional at keeping borderline horses together and getting them to produce to their maximum ability," Cobitz said.

Judging by where he sits going into Saturday, Tagg is still doing that.