05/02/2003 11:00PM

Tagg's first Derby shot is a winner

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Barclay Tagg is a former steeplechase rider known primarily for his prowess at developing turf horses - until Saturday. That's when he won the most important dirt race of them all, the Kentucky Derby, on his first attempt. And he did it with a New York-bred gelding named Funny Cide.

Tagg, 65, began riding jumpers in 1966 and took out his trainers license five years later. His most important victory before Saturday was with Royal Mountain in the Man o' War Handicap, a Grade 1 turf race, at Belmont Park in 1994.

Tagg, along with the invaluable help of his girlfriend and assistant trainer Robin Smullen, took a somewhat unconventional approach to bringing Funny Cide into the Derby. They opted to train their horse in New York until just three days before the race and not even gallop Cide over the Churchill Downs track after his arrival on Wednesday.

In fact, the low-key and conservative Tagg seemed almost reluctant to even bring Funny Cide to the Derby at all. He said "he had no choice" after Funny Cide extended the eventual Derby favorite Empire Maker to the shadow of the wire before losing a half-length decision in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial.

But despite that loss and the fact Funny Cide was winless in three starts in his 3-year-old campaign, Tagg had complete if quiet confidence in his horse, while never doubting his ability to get a mile and one quarter.

"I've been around a lot of horses and I thought there was something special about this one," said Tagg. "I didn't question his ability to get the distance. I noticed in a couple of his races when they came to him he would try harder and I thought that an extra eighth of a mile and a good strong rider like Jose Santos might help us turn the tables on Empire Maker."

Tagg had only attended one previous Derby, in 1989, to watch Sunday Silence defeat Easy Goer.

"I've always watched the race on television," said Tagg. "To run a horse and win the race is very exciting. Robyn and my groom did all the work. Every bit of it. I'm just very thankful for all of this."