06/03/2008 11:00PM

Tagg knows this scene well


ELMONT, N.Y. - The best thing about visiting the Barclay Tagg barn at Belmont Park is hanging around until they give the pony a bath.

The pony is Funny Cide.

Five years ago this weekend, Funny Cide was the toast of the sporting world, poised to become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown after exciting victories in the 2003 versions of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Then it rained all day on Belmont Day and a tightly wound Funny Cide could do no better than third behind Empire Maker, a colt he had beaten in the Derby.

Both Funny Cide and Big Brown have appeared on the track at the same time over the past week or so. Big Brown has been going through his paces under a microscope, preparing for a Triple Crown try of his own, while Funny Cide, still feeling his oats, spends his time accompanying any number of Tagg runners through their morning chores.

Among them is Tale of Ekati, winner of the Wood Memorial and a distant fourth to Big Brown in the Kentucky Derby. Tagg describes his horse as a nice colt who should do plenty of winning before he is through for owner Charles Fipke of Canada. Tagg, however, will not so far as to christen Tale of Ekati as this year's Empire Maker, all dressed up and ready to spoil Big Brown's show.

"If Tale of Ekati really stepped it up and ran a very big race, and for some reason the other horse didn't . . . " Tagg began. "But you hate going into a major race hoping that this and this and this and that happens, because that ain't gonna do it.

"The one thing in everybody else's favor is the mile and a half," Tagg added. "Big Brown hasn't done it yet. And it's not like going from a mile and a sixteenth to a mile and one-eighth, or even a mile and an eighth to a mile and a quarter. It's going from a mile and a quarter to a mile and one-half - a full quarter mile.

"You could make a case that Big Brown stands over this group at a mile and a quarter, and if he's dominating them at that point he should be able to get the job done from there," Tagg went on. "Still, you never want to run away from a race when there's only one horse to beat. Just take a look at the last few Belmonts, and you'll see anything can happen."

The Barclay Tagg-Funny Cide run at the Triple Crown made folk heroes out of both characters. Funny Cide, a gorgeous liver chestnut, was a gelding with New York papers - hardly the typical Derby and Preakness winner. The media got to know Tagg as a no-nonsense professional who was pretty much wasting his time trying to explain how he had a full-time job besides training Funny Cide, and that dealing with the daily barrages from all manner of print and electronic press were above and beyond what he considered his duty.

"I heard the Big Brown people have some kind of restraining order or security restriction on how close you can get to their horse when he's out of his stall," Tagg said. "Wish I'd have thought of that."

In the midst of their 2003 Triple Crown run, Tagg and Robin Smullen, his assistant and longtime companion, were actually forced to move from one apartment into another. When Tagg begged off a Sunday press conference to handle his personal needs, a brace of reporters tried to pry loose a few quotes, but were rebuffed. According to Tagg, their next stop was Bobby Frankel, who was preparing Empire Maker for the Belmont, after which they flagged down Tagg's car as he was pulling away from the barn.

"Frankel says you're coming unraveled," Tagg was told, to which Barclay replied:

"Bobby's got too much class to say a thing like that."

This is pretty typical Triple Crown stuff, when tensions run taught and every word from competing camps drips with significance. History is not easy to make, no matter how well the horses are doing, and the 2008 Triple Crown run is no different. Even without Big Brown's minor quarter crack, currently holding its repair, the daily high-octane doses of his trainer, Rick Dutrow, have begun to put some reporters on edge.

Dutrow is a self-described reformed doper with a recent history of medication violations (mostly minor) and procedural handslaps (hidden works, communicating with help while suspended). More recently, columnists have characterized him as "the trainer with the big mouth and shady past" and "a rule-bending braggart." Dutrow was asked if he read his reviews, and if he minded being labeled a jerk and a sleaze.

"I do read as much of it as I can, and it's mostly pretty good," Dutrow said with a grin. "I have been a jerk and a sleaze, but I'm not a sleazy jerk."

Tagg has a slightly different point of view, coming from a Maryland racing world where the late Richard Dutrow Sr. was a training icon.

"He was a very quiet guy," Tagg said of Rick Dutrow's dad. "Not rude, but very focused. And he knew every horse on the racetrack - not just his. Richie's got the same gift as a horseman. Surreal. And when he got his act together, it was straight to the top."

The top awaits Saturday.