Updated on 09/17/2011 10:30AM

Tagg no unknown to game's students


WASHINGTON - Casual viewers of the Kentucky Derby, who expect a trainer named Baffert or Lukas to win every year, may never have heard the name of Barclay Tagg before his victory with Funny Cide.

But Marylanders who have observed Tagg's work over the years know it was no fluke that he made his mark at the highest level of the game. It was fluky that he had to toil more than three decades and reach the age of 65 before he did it.

Tagg now operates out of New York, but until two years ago his stable was based at Pimlico. In the leanest of those years, he watched the Preakness not from a box seat but from the roof of a barn on the backstretch. Saturday he will have a homecoming that he could never have imagined, as he saddles Funny Cide in a bid to win the second leg of the Triple Crown.

Tagg arrived at Pimlico in 1971 with a one-horse stable, a degree from Penn State, and a background with steeplechase horses. After a decade of hard work, he was still struggling to establish himself. In 1982 his horses won a total of 10 races and a meager $68,239 in purses. But eventually he carved out a niche for himself, making a reputation as a specialist with grass runners.

Tagg insists this was an accident: "I got the grass moniker because I had a lot of very ordinary horses. I'd try them on the grass and moved some of them up by putting them on a different surface." In fact, his success on the turf was probably not such a random phenomenon. Dirt races emphasize speed, while grass races stress finishing ability, and Tagg's training style was probably tilted in the latter direction. Whatever the reason, he developed superior grass runners such as Miss Josh, La Turka, Social Retiree, and Royal Mountain Inn, who won the Grade 1 Man o' War Stakes at Belmont Park in 1994.

One might have expected that an international owner with high-class grass horses would have noticed Tagg's expertise and hired him. It didn't happen. But if Tagg wasn't attracting attention from the habitues of the Turf Club, he did win the respect of bettors in the grandstand. When Tagg shipped horses from Maryland to Florida, New York or elsewhere, those horses were often ignored because of their Maryland background, but they invariably ran well.

Jim Mazur, who publishes a series of books analyzing trainers at racing circuits around the country, said Tagg is his favorite horseman in America. "He's toiled in obscurity, but he's a guy that horseplayers always look for," Mazur said.

Mazur wrote in "The Saratoga Handicapper," "The Tagg Rule of Thumb is simple: He's an automatic bet at odds of 7-1 or higher."

Another fan who noticed Tagg's skill was a Saratoga resident who attended his hometown track every racing day. He observed, "Barclay would ship up grass runners from Maryland, and they would almost never run a bad race. He came in under the radar screen, and the horse would jump up and pay $15 or $25." The fan's name was Jack Knowlton, and his future association with Tagg would alter both of their lives.

Knowlton managed the small racing operation of some longtime friends who call themselves the Sackatoga Stable, and he asked Tagg to get a horse for them. The horse was Bail Money, who won several races on the grass before he was claimed away from the stable for $62,500. Knowlton said, "We basically rolled the money into Funny Cide."

Since Tagg bought Funny Cide on Sackatoga Stable's behalf for $75,000, the gelding has brought the trainer into the spotlight, highlighted his skills, and demonstrated that he can do more than train grass specialists. Tagg developed Funny Cide into a successful 2-year-old, winning three straight races against soft New York-bred competition. Over the winter, Tagg battled a throat problem of Funny Cide's that plagued the gelding and compromised his first two performances as a 3-year-old. But the trainer got Funny Cide back in top form so that he was ready to run the race of his life on the first Saturday in May.

Viewers who saw Tagg's brief appearance on NBC's Kentucky Derby telecast might have deduced that this is no Bob Baffert or Wayne Lukas with a big smile and a line of glib patter. Tagg always looks a little dour, and he is, by his own admission, a chronic pessimist. ("There are always more lows than highs in this business," he said. "There's no way around that.")

Tagg has always been a stern, demanding perfectionist in the conduct of his business. In 1985 he trained his first good horse, Roo Art, whose owners were eager to run him against tough competition in New York. Tagg wanted to give the colt one more easy race in Maryland, and before the race he perceived how unhappy the owners were. He told them, "I'm not comfortable training for you."

The owners subsequently turned over Roo Art to Lukas, who won the prestigious Suburban Handicap with him. Tagg never fretted about it.

He still feels the same way: "If people are conscious that I'm honest and hardworking and trying to do what's best for them, and they pay their bills on time, I'm grateful to have them as owners. If they're going to second-guess you all the time, I do not want them."

After working 32 years to reach the zenith of his career, Tagg will not have to worry about being second-guessed ever again.