Updated on 09/18/2011 12:54AM

Is Tagg trying to tell us something?


WASHINGTON - The Triple Crown races subject trainers to intense scrutiny and pressure. Some, such as Bob Baffert and Nick Zito, thrive on it; they can deal with interviewers for hours a day and still maintain a sharp focus on their horses. The majority of horsemen grudgingly tolerate the media circus and the necessity to answer the same questions day after day. But rarely has a trainer appeared so miserable in the spotlight as Barclay Tagg.

As he managed Funny Cide in 2003, Tagg was variously described as grumpy, grouchy, pessimistic, curt, and grim. He viewed reporters as a distraction, and sometimes treated them as adversaries. Even after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, triumphs that represented the apex of his career, his demeanor rarely lightened.

During that Triple Crown series, Tagg remained an enigma to most people who observed him, but this much was certain: Unlike most of his brethren in the training profession, he would never bring a 3-year-old into the classics without a compelling reason. He certainly wouldn't be coming for the parties or the media exposure.

Therefore, his expected presence in Louisville on Saturday is significant.

Tagg trains Showing Up, who has won all three races in a career that began in mid-February. Showing Up has shown flashes of unmistakable brilliance, but 131 years of historical evidence suggests that Showing Up doesn't have enough seasoning to become the 132nd Kentucky Derby winner. Tagg said he was reserving his decision about entering the Derby until Wednesday morning, as he monitors a superficial leg injury that Showing Up suffered in his last start, but Tagg is manifestly enthusiastic about going to Churchill Downs. Whatever else people may say or think about Tagg, they know his skill and judgment are not to be taken lightly.

During the many years that he trained a small stable in Maryland, Tagg always commanded respect from insiders and bettors who saw how judiciously he handled his horses. Yet few owners took notice, and Tagg's career was a constant struggle. In her book "Funny Cide," Sally Jenkins wrote: "Some years, Barclay barely broke even. Some years, he ended up behind. Hard work and hard times had taken the buoyancy out of him and made him curt."

Certainly, no buoyancy was evident when he was managing Funny Cide through the Triple Crown races. He was more intense than ever. He worried constantly about Funny Cide's high-strung temperament and was obsessed about keeping the media hordes from disturbing the gelding. When he gave interviews, he didn't have glib answers, because his training was guided as much by instinct as it was by plans. "You do a lot of stuff in this game by guesses and hunches and feel," he said.

Now Tagg's instincts are telling him that Showing Up belongs in the Derby.

Owned by the Lael Stable of Roy and Gretchen Jackson, Showing Up was beset by problems as a 2-year-old. "He kept going lame," Tagg said. "He was going through growing pains, I guess."

Showing Up didn't make his first start until Feb. 11 at Gulfstream Park, but it was a smashing debut. Caught in traffic during much of the race, he accelerated powerfully when he found running room and won by four lengths in fast time. A month later, he beat a strong field in an allowance race by running a mile in 1:34. Then he shipped to Keeneland and captured the Lexington Stakes, although his performance was not overpowering. He got a perfect trip stalking the leaders and won with a moderate speed figure.

The Lexington victory gave Showing Up sufficient earnings to secure a place in the 20-horse Derby field, but the race's history underscores the difficulty he faces.

Showing Up would be going into the Derby with only three previous career starts. The last horse to win with fewer than five career starts was Exterminator in 1918.

Showing Up would be going into the Derby without a foundation of experience as a 2-year-old. The last horse who was unraced at 2 and won the Derby was Apollo in 1882.

These are not fluky statistics. They reflect the fact that the Derby is an extraordinarily stressful race and that horses need ample conditioning and experience to win it.

Tagg knows the historical record, but he said: "I think a lot of that stuff has changed now. All I know is that Showing Up has done everything so easy, and he's run decent figures. He's got the mental aplomb of a very nice horse. There's no pressure on me to run," he said, referring to the fact that Lael Stables also has Barbaro, a leading Derby contender. "I hate to deny him the chance when he's coming up to the race so good."

If another trainer said the same things, it would be reasonable to conclude that he was suffering from a typical case of Derby fever and trying to make a case for a colt who probably didn't belong in the race. But handicappers might have to adjust their assessment of Showing Up when Tagg talks about him without sounding grumpy, grouchy, curt, pessimistic, or grim.

(c) 2006 The Washington Post