10/25/2007 12:00AM

Tagg enjoying his best year yet after 40 year of training

EmailELMONT, N.Y. - Barclay Tagg was around racehorses for 40 years before he became an overnight sensation in 2003. It has taken him only four more years to assemble the largest, deepest barn he has ever trained.

Long respected as a trainer on the East Coast, Tagg had knocked off a Grade 1 race here and there with the likes of Miss Josh and Royal Mountain Inn, but it wasn't until Funny Cide came along that Tagg's profile was raised.

"He certainly led the parade," Tagg said in his Belmont Park stable office the other morning.

That's what winning a Kentucky Derby and an Eclipse Award with a popular gelding can do. Suddenly, people took notice. So much so that Tagg now has 85 horses in three different locales, will send out two horses with terrific chances in Breeders' Cup races on Saturday at Monmouth Park, and has had the best year of his career in terms of earnings despite losing two key members of his stable.

What hasn't changed is Tagg's famous curmudgeonly behavior. It came to the fore the other day, when Tale of Ekati, in his final drill for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, worked far faster than Tagg had instructed, and left him understandably seething. During the Triple Crown in 2003 with Funny Cide, Tagg was overwhelmed at times by the constant attention, complaining it was taking away from the time he needed to spend with horses other than Funny Cide.

But those who take the time to know Tagg, a 1961 graduate of Penn State, find him to be whip smart, extremely well educated, precise with his use of the English language, devilishly charming and funny, and viscerally passionate and thorough when it comes to his craft.

He has no hobbies, other than reading the Wall Street Journal or his literary favorite, New Yorker magazine.

"They've got great writers," Tagg said.

Tagg lives in Floral Park, N.Y., a brief drive from the stables at Belmont Park, with Robin Smullen, who is also his assistant and top exercise rider. They leave their house - "The house that Funny bought," Smullen calls it - in time to be at the barn by 4:30 every morning, then often remain there until it's time for dinner. If they go out, it's usually at a nearby restaurant with trainer Allen Jerkens, but they admit they are frequently a few minutes late.

"Then we gobble it down and come back at the barn at 9 to check on them," Tagg said.

On Mondays and Tuesdays, Tagg will visit the stock he has at the Fair Hill training center in Maryland and at Delaware Park. Caring for the 40 horses he has at Belmont, 30 at Fair Hill, and 15 at Delaware "is all we think about from the time the alarm goes off," Tagg said.

"You go the barn and feel their legs, do that seven days a week," Tagg said. "It's habitual and it's necessary. You don't have time to sit back and reflect on your accomplishments."

If he did take a moment, Tagg would find himself in the midst of his best year yet. He began 2007 with Showing Up rated as one of the nation's best turf horses, but Tagg only got one start out of that colt this year before he went to the sidelines with a slight tear in a suspensory ligament. Funny Cide was retired in July, going out a winner following a stakes victory at Finger Lakes.

Despite those setbacks, Tagg has kept motoring. Nobiz Like Shobiz, one of the leading prospects for the Kentucky Derby earlier this year, has found a new home on turf, where he has won all three of his starts, all in stakes, and will go for a fourth on Saturday in the Breeders' Cup Mile.

"He's doing very well right now," Tagg said. "In his earlier races, he was a little bit obstreperous. We took him back last time, and that worked out well. He had an explosive move at the end. We were thinking of running in the Hollywood Derby, but there's no accolades if you win that. If we're lucky enough to win this, he might win the turf championship."

Tale of Ekati won the Futurity at Belmont and will be one of the top choices in the Juvenile, which should decide an Eclipse Award.

"He's a tenacious horse," Tagg said. "He seems to work his way around trouble."

In addition to those horses, Tagg has won major stakes races this year with the female turf runners Bit of Whimsy and Dance Away Capote, who is headed to next month's Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park. Through Sunday, Tagg was 15th in the nation in purse earnings, with $4,482,493.

Tagg and Smullen credit the success to a combination of factors, most notably better- quality horses, a change in their feed program beginning Jan. 1, 2006, and the implementation of the detention barn for New York Racing Association races.

"I think it levels the playing field," Tagg said.

"And I definitely keep learning, every day. Every day you're confronted with something else. How are you going to rectify this? Every day there's a new challenge. I've learned an awful lot the last 10 years, and the 10 years before that. It's an ongoing process."

There's no question, though, that Funny Cide provided the spark, and the appreciation for him is obvious. Tagg's stable office is adorned with photos of Funny Cide, and if they want to see him in the flesh, he's right there, too. After retiring from racing, Funny Cide was turned into a stable pony for Tagg and Smullen, and he almost seamlessly took his new assignment.

"He's a pretty classy horse," Tagg said. "I thought at first he might get a little rattled taking horses to the gate, but he'd watch set after set and not flick an ear."

Earlier this week, Smullen was aboard Funny Cide when he accompanied Tale of Ekati to the track for his final Breeders' Cup workout at Belmont Park. It was as though, in the Tagg barn, the torch was being passed.