Updated on 09/17/2011 10:26AM

The power of negative thinking


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - As this is being written, it has been 24 hours now since Funny Cide won the 129th running of the Kentucky Derby. A cautious peek through the tightly drawn curtains of a motel near the airport revealed no river of blood running down Phillips Lane, no plague of toads raining down upon Standiford Field, no beasts running loose in the streets, commiting unnatural acts. Louisville had not been consumed by fire.

This was a surprise, although a pleasant one, since the conventional wisdom had just been shattered and replaced with a heresy so rank as to bring a curse upon the land. Or at least in the Lexington area, center of the nation's breeding industry.

A Thoroughbred racehorse named Funny Cide, foaled in New York and later relieved of his testicles, had just captured America's greatest prize. To hear the reaction, it was hard to decide which was more astounding. New York is where you grow apples and blueberries and precocious little Broadway babies, not Thoroughbreds. And the last time a gelding won the Derby, Herbert Hoover was a household name.

Of course, such statistical anomalies can be explained away. Larger foal crops compared to the mid-20th century mean more of everything, including geldings good enough to win the Derby. Three times in recent memory an altered male has finished second, and none were closer than Cavonnier in 1996, who lost by a lip to Grindstone. It was an event trying hard to happen.

As for New York's sudden emergence as a cradle of Derby glory, let's get real. The breed has become so thoroughly cross-pollinated through accommodating statebred requirements that a good horse can turn up with almost any kind of stamp on his passport. This Derby winner came fully equipped with the bloodlines of Mr. Prospector, Seattle Slew, and Sea-Bird, all part of Funny Cide's family tree.

It was a strange enough Derby anyway, with Kid Rock seemingly ready to assume the role of grand marshal and spiritual heir to Matt Winn, and political protesters on the march downtown, where they staged a mock Derby between Empire Maker and Peace Rules. The outcome was not hard to predict.

And yet, if a poll were taken and everyone was asked to cite the most outlandish twist to the results of Derby 2003, the answer would have nothing to do with gender or birthplace or choice of a particular prep race.

No, the stunner was the identity of the trainer, and no one was more stunned than the trainer himself.

At the age of 65, respected by his peers, Barclay Tagg can be forgiven if he thought the highest rewards of the game were about to pass him by. Certainly, his credentials were as good as any trainer would want. After a fling with jump riding he climbed down from the horse and apprenticed himself to such icons as Jonathan Sheppard and Frank Whiteley. Based in Maryland, not far from his Pennsylvania roots, Tagg tended to get the most from what he was given. Sometimes they were good enough to win on the national stage, like when Miss Josh won the Gamely at Hollywood Park, or Royal Mountain Inn took Belmont's Man o' War.

Tagg is also an unrepentant pessimist, although "realist" might be more to the point.

"I am a pessimist," he conceded, offering a self-deprecating smile. "I'm not proud of it, but I am."

How could the job make a person otherwise? A trainer with a bounce in his step and a perpetual grin must be written off as either simple-minded or self-delusional. Guys like Bobby Frankel, Richard Mandella, and Allen Jerkens earned their scowls in battle. The enemy, as Tagg articulated in his post-Derby interviews, is the breed, and what is required.

"It's a daily occurrence with all these Thoroughbreds," Tagg said. "Things go wrong with them so easily. They're very, very frail, and we ask them to do a lot. We ask them to carry weight and run 40 miles an hour, and train every day, and live in a small stall full of dusty straw and hay. It's contrary to what nature really set them up for.

"So you think you might have a big, fat, shiny, good-looking horse that's working beautifully and running beautifully, and you set him all up for something like this" - the Kentucky Derby - "and any day you walk in there at five o'clock in the morning and feel his legs, there could be something wrong with him. That's it. You just stop the whole thing. It kind of numbs you after awhile."

Funny Cide tested Tagg's pessimism to the limit. In the weeks between his second-place finish to Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial and his date in the Derby, he literally did nothing wrong. There was never an oat left in his tub, never a wrong turn on the track or a warm spot where a cold, hard ligament should be. In the end, Tagg had to concede. Maybe this time it was meant to be, and when it happened, it was, in Tagg's words, "wonderful, just wonderful."

Now it's on to the Preakness.

"It's unnatural, to run a good horse back in just two weeks," Tagg said. "But I guess we'll have to just bite down and do it. Nothing seems to faze him. Last night after the race he was bouncing around his stall, ducking down and grabbing for my leg, trying to bite me. You'd never know he just ran a mile and a quarter against the best 3-year-olds in the world."

At least he sounded optimistic.