Belmont Stakes 2020: How Tagg puts the horse first

Belmont Stakes 2020: How Tagg puts the horse first
Photo: Gulfstream Park


Assistant Robin Smullen chooses that one word to describe trainer Barclay Tagg’s greatest attribute.

“You have to have patience,” Smullen said, “and he’s more patient than anyone I know about getting a horse to the right spot at the right time.”

Tagg’s painstaking management of Funny Cide allowed that purchase for Sackatoga Stable to accomplish what $75,000 New York-bred geldings are never expected to accomplish by sweeping the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

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His patience with Tiz the Law, a $110,000 gem in behalf of Sackatoga, helped that reconfigured partnership of modest owners to do the unthinkable by catching lightning in a bottle twice.

Jack Knowlton, Sackatoga’s managing partner who pulled up to Churchill Downs in a yellow school bus to upset the Derby, is back on the Triple Crown trail due to his unwavering belief in Tagg’s old-school approach.

Few trainers and owners would be willing to spurn an expense-paid berth in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park as Tagg and Knowlton did after Tiz the Law romped by four lengths in the Oct. 5 Champagne Stakes (G1).

Yet Tagg barely gave that fat purse a thought.

“I didn’t want to go all the way out to California and make that big round-trip with a young horse. I was zeroing in on his 3-year-old year,” Tagg said.

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Many other trainers talk about putting the horse first. Tagg does.

“There is an old saying, ‘You can’t squeeze the lemon.’ We just try to do things sensibly, that’s all,” he said. “We try to know the horse and do what’s best for him.” He has been guided by that since he saddled his first winner in January, 1972 at old Liberty Bell Park in Philadelphia.

Tagg’s innate sense concerning what is best for Tiz the Law has the bay colt seemingly positioned to command the Belmont Stakes on Saturday with the same ease with which he handled his previous two starts this season.

He ruled the Feb. 1 Holy Bull (G3) by three lengths and the March 28 Florida Derby (G1) by four-and-a-quarter lengths for regular rider Manny Franco, giving him four victories in five career starts for $945,300 in earnings.

Tagg turned his back on another prestigious race with a hefty purse by opting not to ship the 3-year-old to Oaklawn Park to run in one of two divisions of the May 2 Arkansas Derby.

“You do what you think is best. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” Tagg said. “It’s real simple that way.”

The current extended layoff does not appear to be a concern. The Constitution colt, bred by Twin Creeks Farm, has responded well to previous layoffs.

“I think it worked out fine. I hope he’ll run well. I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t,” Tagg said of his 6-5 favorite for the 1 1/8-mile Belmont, the opening leg of this year’s Triple Crown due to the pandemic.

In case you had not noticed, Tagg is a man of few words. He accommodates members of the media out of a sense of obligation rather than any desire to promote himself or a training operation that typically avoids lower-level claiming horses.

He also has never gone out of his way to build on Funny Cide’s success by schmoozing potential owners who might have the spending power to regularly supply him with regally-bred runners with classic potential. As a result, his stable typically numbers anywhere from 20-25 horses.

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“Barclay is more of an animal person than a person person,” said Smullen, Tagg’s life partner. “Both of us sort of lean away from media and gatherings.”

Their happiest time is at their barn at Belmont Park, tending to their horses’ needs, listening to them about how best to manage them. Hour after hour. Day after day. Year after year.

“There is no other life,” Smullen said. “That’s what it is. Horses are it.”

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