06/06/2003 11:00PM

Tagg deserves to feel proud


ELMONT, N.Y. - It was two days before the Belmont Stakes, late in the afternoon, and Barclay Tagg was sitting in a box overlooking the finish line of a nearly deserted Belmont Park as a field of jumpers began their 2 1/2-mile journey in the $100,000 Meadow Brook Steeplechase.

He had better things to do, but he was having a good time.

"Now that's how I wish Funny Cide would go off," Tagg said as the jumpers dropped their heads and galloped calmly into the first turn of their long journey. "That's how you win a mile-and-a-half race."

The flashbacks were coming fast as Tagg watched the 'chase unfold. For five tough years, when he was younger and didn't know any better, Tagg threw caution to the wind and rode professionally over the jumps. Clearly, the fire still smoldered somewhere in his 65-year-old gut.

"I'm not too old to ride," he told a friend. "But I am too old to fall."

Right on cue, the Meadow Brook began to take its toll. Two riders tumbled at jumps down the backstretch, then another lost control nearing the finish and came off just past the wire. Tagg winced at each.

"Did they get up?" he wondered. They did.

Tagg's journey from high fences and hard falls of the 1960's to the Triple Crown madness of 2003 provided the trainer with a perspective that was probably lost on many observers. The bulk of the mass media on the Triple Crown scene had come to expect the glib accessibility of Bob Baffert, or the predigested coach patter of Wayne Lukas, or at the very least the god-and-country zeal of New York's own Nick Zito.

Tagg, trying hard not to be charismatic, assumed the thankless task of explaining to city folk what the profession truly required. When he called training a "full-time job," he did not mean 9 to 5, five days a week, with two weeks paid vacation and a dental plan. He meant an "all-the-time" job.

"It's agriculture," he said. "It never stops. If you have dairy cows, they need to be milked every day. If you have horses, they need to be fed and exercised. I have a stable of other horses besides Funny Cide, and I have to take care of them, because if something happened to him tomorrow, I'd still need to make a living."

No one was sure what he meant by cows.

Still, Tagg was genuinely moved by his turn in the spotlight. Both peers and strangers stopped by often to wish him well. Letters poured in, e-mails were forwarded, hands reached out as he went about his business.

"I've been saving this for something special, and this is it," said attorney Dave Decerbo as he approached Tagg by the saddling paddock and gave the trainer what appeared to be an ordinary overgirth. "I don't care if you use it. I just want you to have it."

It was an overgirth, but hardly ordinary. It had been worn by Secretariat, purchased by Decerbo at a charity auction years ago, and authenticated by signatures from Penny Chenery, Lucien Laurin, and Ron Turcotte.

Tagg held it as if he were handling the shroud of Turin. Such a gesture meant more than all the cable interviews in the world. But nothing matched the good-luck note from a certain football coaching icon.

"It was from Joe Paterno," said Tagg, a Penn State grad. "I mean, there's no way he would have known I existed. I ran a little track, that's all."

"Are you kidding? Paterno!" said a fellow Pennsylvanian. "That's like getting a blessing from the Pope."

Then, to ice the cake, Penny Chenery herself - keeper of the Secretariat flame - paused in the Belmont box seats late on Friday afternoon to give Tagg some old-school advice on dealing with the intensity of the Triple Crown.

"Keep your head down," said Chenery with a grin and a pat on his arm.

He did. And even though Funny Cide came up one race short of a Triple Crown, Tagg can forever hold his head high.