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Updated on 09/17/2011 10:29AM
Tagg team a motley crew
ELMONT, N.Y. - Trainer Barclay Tagg did not see Funny Cide for nearly two weeks following his second-place finish to Empire Maker in the April 12 Wood Memorial. Trying to move horses among Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, and New York kept Tagg on the road.
Even though his first trip to the Kentucky Derby lay on the horizon, Tagg, 65, had no worries back in New York. He knew Funny Cide was in good hands.
Robin Smullen, Tagg's assistant and longtime girlfriend, was overseeing Funny Cide's preparation as well as that of eight other horses in Tagg's Belmont Park barn. Smullen, a former trainer, along with 50-year-old hotwalker Raunie Hart and 19-year-old groom Zacarias Quintana, make up the core of the team that helped Tagg develop the New York-bred gelding into the 129th Kentucky Derby winner.
Further behind the scenes were contributions from equine dentist Van Nardiello III and veterinarian Dr. Stephen Selway, who helped take care of a breathing problem for Funny Cide, who will try to take the next step in the Triple Crown in Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
"I've got a very, very good crew,' said Tagg, a former steeplechase jockey who has been training horses for more than 30 years. "I wouldn't feel bad about going away for six months and leaving Robin and them in charge.'
Smullen, 40, was born into the horse business. Her mother, Ann, was a former show jumper and ran Laurel Hill Farm in Oxford, Pa., about 20 miles from Delaware Park in Stanton, Del.
"I was in her belly when she won a very big show,' Smullen said.
Smullen is from one of two sets of identical twins that Ann Smullen had over 11 1/2 months in 1962. The feat was noted in the Ripley's Believe It Or Not almanac. Ann Smullen died two years ago.
"My only regret is that neither she nor my father are here to see this,' said Robin Smullen, who is from the younger set of twins along with her brother Rick.
Smullen began showing horses at the age of 4. In 1980, one of her horses won three gold medals, but shortly after suffered an aneurysm and died. Distraught, Smullen got out of the show-horse business and went to work for Dr. John Fisher, a Maryland-based trainer. She worked six years for Fisher, then a year for Dolly Bostwick and another year for Marvin Green, who trained for the powerful Firestone family.
Smullen took out her trainer's license in the late 1980's and had horses on the Charles Town, Maryland, and Delaware circuit. She married jockey Michael Sanders, but the marriage disintegrated and so did her training career. In 1994, she rejoined Fisher in Maryland.
In 1998, Smullen took a small string of Fisher's horses to Hialeah. Frustrated that his horses weren't getting into any races, Fisher decided to bring them back north. But Smullen decided to stay and do something she swore she would never do: work for Tagg, whom she began dating in 1997.
"I told him I wouldn't go to work for him because it would put our relationship in jeopardy, and I didn't want to do that,' Smullen said. "But we got along so well that now I don't want to work for somebody else. Ninety-nine percent of the time we think exactly alike.'
Smullen and Tagg had similar thoughts when they first saw Funny Cide on a visit to New Episode Training Center in Ocala, Fla., in the fall of 2001 on their way to Gulfstream Park, their winter base. They fell for the chestnut gelding's good looks and the way he moved. Their problem was that they had nobody to invest the $40,000 it would have taken at the time to buy Funny Cide.
Tagg knew that Jack Knowlton of Sackatoga Stable was looking for a New York-bred and might be interested. But, the timing wasn't right.
Tagg kept tabs on Funny Cide during the winter, and the price gradually went up to $75,000. It was a bit too much for Sackatoga until somebody claimed the filly Bail Money from the stable for $62,500 on March 6, 2002. Soon after, Knowlton advised Tagg to purchase Funny Cide.
Smullen was running Tagg's Delaware stable when Funny Cide came to Belmont last May. But the aggressive gelding proved too much for a number of exercise riders, and Tagg summoned Smullen. She got along with the horse, and by the time the Saratoga meet began, Smullen was Funny Cide's regular exercise rider.
"I think she's got all the strengths of a horsewoman,' Tagg said. "She can train a large string of top-class horses anytime anyone wants to give them to her.'
Throat problem misdiagnosed
Funny Cide won his first two starts last September with ease. But five days prior to the Oct. 19 Sleepy Hollow Stakes, Tagg noticed that Funny Cide had a slight buildup of mucus in his trachea. Tagg figured the horse was good enough to overcome the problem and he did, winning the Sleepy Hollow by a neck from Spite the Devil.
The mucus problem troubled Funny Cide for several months. Veterinarians put him on a variety of antibiotics, none of which cleared it up.
In Florida, before Funny Cide ran third in the Louisiana Derby, Tagg described the gelding's problems to Selway, who ordered the antibiotics stopped immediately. Without having seen Funny Cide's trachea, Selway deduced that the gelding was having trouble moving mucus through his throat because of the lack of hairs, or cilia, on the trachea. He prescribed Acetylcisteine, a muculactic agent similar to artificial tears that prohibits mucus plugs from building up.
Also, Funny Cide was given treatments with a transpirator, a machine that heats distilled water to 105 degrees. A mask is placed over the horse's face, and the steam generated helps clean out the horse's throat.
According to Smullen, Funny Cide's throat was 97-percent clean going into the Wood and 100-percent clean going into the Kentucky Derby.
Funny Cide developed another problem last winter. He was bearing out while training many mornings. It turned out that Funny Cide had broken a tooth and on some mornings "the horse was coming back with his mouth bleeding,' Smullen said.
While it is common for a horse to lose most of its baby teeth before turning 3, Van Nardiello said the development of Funny Cide's teeth were three months behind schedule for a horse his age. He removed two baby teeth from Funny Cide eight days before the Wood Memorial. It was Funny Cide's gutsy second-place finish in the Wood that earned him a trip to Louisville.
Playful and wise, but no biter
Raunie Hart said he was "just looking for a job' when he visited Tagg's Belmont barn one morning last November. Tagg's stable was shipping to Palm Meadows, the new training facility in Boynton Beach, Fla., and Smullen knew help would be hard to find.
She told Hart to come back early the next morning and be ready to ride in a van down to Florida. Hart arrived before 6 a.m.
Hart said Funny Cide is a pleasure to be around and has some personality. "He was such a laid back, wise horse; one of the wisest horses I've ever seen," Hart said. "He's not tough to walk, he doesn't cause a problem in any kind of way, keeps his mind focused.
"He's not a biter; he will play with you, but he's not a biter,' Hart said. "When a groom is eating his lunch, he will stick his head out as if to say, 'if you got any extra, I will take some too.' '
Hart, a native of Chicago, is a single parent of a 20-year-old son. He has worked on and off the track since the mid 1970's. But now he hopes he has found a home with Tagg and Smullen.
"It seemed like a blessing the Lord steered me here,' Hart said. "I've seen a few big trainers win the Derby that don't have the training ability that Robin and Barclay have. They're beautiful people. They make you appreciate your job.'
As a hotwalker, Hart earns $250 a week. In addition to Funny Cide, he will walk three or four other horses. Hart's income is supplemented about an additional $150 because he comes back in the afternoon to feed and walk horses and returns again at night to feed.
"He's a superior individual, first class,' Tagg said of Hart. "He can stay here as long as I'm alive.'
A groom who pays attention to detail
Zacarias Quintana came to the United Stakes from Mexico five days before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His brother had worked at Belmont, and through the brother and a few friends, he landed a job with Tagg as a hotwalker. Quintana doesn't speak much English, but he caught Smullen and Tagg's attention.
"He was so much more meticulous than anyone else,' Smullen said.
Quintana graduated from hotwalker to groom last year, and Funny Cide is the first horse he rubbed. Quintana earns $450 to rub four horses as well as do other chores. Now that Funny Cide has won the Derby and needs more attention, Tagg has cut Quintana back to two horses. The other one is an unraced 3-year-old named Highland Hope, a half-sister to Royal Mountain Inn and Miss Josh, the only other Grade 1 winners trained by Tagg.
"Zacarias is very good," Tagg said. "He just loves his horses, he takes very good care of them. He hasn't been around a long time, but he can certainly see a change and point it out to you. We want them to tell us anything they see, and we don't chastise them if it turns out to be nothing.'
Tagg, who has 20 horses in his Belmont barn and about a dozen more at Fair Hill in Maryland, is a hands-on trainer, inspecting the legs of every horse every morning. But, he understands the importance of having good help and is thankful to have Quintana and Hart.
"I would fly them to hell and back with a horse,' he said.
Like a baseball team assembled through free agency, the Funny Cide team was pieced together with rookies, veterans, and castoffs. But, with no salary cap to worry about, this is one team that could be around to enjoy a few more moments like the one on May 3.