“I’ve known him my whole life.”
Words used when asked about a friend, a comrade, a peer, a brother in arms, a member of the band. You know a person who has been in your circle so long, it feels like they helped you draw the circle.
Old jump riders, they’re in your circle.
When Barclay Tagg won the Belmont Stakes with Tiz the Law June 20, the question was asked and answered.
“I’ve known him my whole life.”
And in a way, I guess I have.
Barclay Tagg rode Nalanx for my father Joe Clancy Sr. at Rolling Rock in 1971. Oh, Rolling Rock, the glorious long-gone bastion of steeplechasing in Ligonier, Pa. Big fences. Big parties. Two days of racing in the same week. Talk about a circle, I was 17 months old when Tagg rode for my dad. Two years after Nalanx, my dad won the amateur hurdle there on board Farmers Lot. My brother, Joe, rode in the last race at Rolling Rock in 1983. And here we are in 2020, writing about Tagg winning the Belmont Stakes with Tiz the Law, to complete his personal Triple Crown, started with Funny Cide’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes victories in 2003.
But back in 1971, Tagg was stoking the last embers of a journeyman jump-jockey’s career while my dad was trying to kindle a fledgling trainer’s career, aiming high with a $1,000 horse, ruled off for not going in the gate, never mind out, at Charles Town long before he met Clancy and Tagg.
Of course, I called Dad when it came to writing a feature about a man I say I’ve known my whole life, ask about Nalanx and the three-day turnaround. “Did he ride him both days? Did I run him both days?” Dad asked. “He couldn’t keep up on Wednesday…”
I called Joe to find the 1971 steeplechase book in our Fair Hill office, because I can somehow only find 1970 and 1972 on my bookshelf. Joe walked up a flight of stairs, pulled it off the bookshelf, you feel the history.
“Finished fourth behind Bongocero, Shadow II and Stretch II…”
We swooned at the same time.
“Man, those are good horses.”
Joe flipped the pages.
“Whoa, they went to Belmont between the Wednesday and Saturday,” Joe said, skipping through charts of a lost era when jump jockeys were home grown from the hunt field or show ring. “Yeah, finished seventh to Manchu Prince on Saturday. Tagg rode him both times.”
We could almost hear Tagg straight-shoot it to our straight-shooting dad after Nalanx chased icons, cave drawings of our childhood.
“Joe, he’s all right, but he can’t beat those.”
So, Dad ran him back three days later.
“It was over the big old brush fences,” Dad said of Wednesday’s race, the $5,500 Rolling Rock Hunt Cup. “I could never get Barclay. Hell, I would have ridden him every time I could have gotten him back then. I always got along good with him.”
Now that’s saying something. Every year, when we arrive in Saratoga and see Tagg for the first time since the summer before, he asks about our dad, our family. Not most times. Every time.
“The first race he won was a race on the flat at Radnor, I rode in the race, I was third. He rode all right,” Dad said. “He said once he would have stayed in Pennsylvania fox hunting and having fun if he could have afforded it. He was working for Sheppard, he was doing all right, then [future champion] Michael O’Brien came over from Ireland, hell, he would drive the van, do this, that and everything and that’s when Barclay realized he couldn’t get anywhere. He was fine where he was, but he wasn’t going to do everything others were willing to do to get more rides. He wasn’t going to kiss anybody’s ass.”
No, that didn’t happen then. Or now.
A year after Nalanx chased moonbeams, Tagg was on his own, training horses at Pimlico, with a “board-bill” filly from his old friend Charlie Kelley. Tagg won his first race at Liberty Bell Park, one of eight wins, in 1972. “It’s been a scuffle ever since,” Tagg says still. He might not have driven the van for Sheppard, but he would drive the van for himself.
“He was smart enough to get away from the jumpers when he saw he wasn’t going to go any further,” Dad said. “He was very fiery when he first started, almost had a quick temper but it blew over in a hurry.”
Then my 85-year-old father started laughing.
“I’ll never forget at Timonium…”
Tagg walked to the track with a filly fresh from the farm.
“Just back her up in front of the stands and let her go one and a half as easy as you can get her around there,” Tagg said to the exercise rider.
Minutes later, the filly whizzed past on the rail.
Tagg turned to dad, “Was that my horse?”
“What did I tell him to do? What did I tell him to do? What did I tell him to do?”
That exercise rider learned the definition of fiery.
“He went nuts,” Dad said, still laughing. “He went from casually talking to me to going ballistic.”
The conversation quickly returned to horsemanship, the kind recognized inside the circle and ignored outside it.
“When he was at Timonium, he was struggling,” Dad said. “But we were at Delaware Park a few years later and I could see Barclay coming in there at night grazing horses. He’d always have somebody with him, he’d graze horses for hours. Nobody else was doing it. Nobody ever gave Barclay anything. He worked for anything he ever got.”
And when I realize that’s all I will get from Dad, I looked elsewhere – back into the archives. So far back, the words aren’t digital, they’re in crates in the attic. There is no Google when it comes to the attic.
Eventually, you find the July 2003 Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, the Preakness Stakes edition, the kingpin issue of the year, especially when Mid-Atlantic connections win the second jewel.
Tagg, a Pennsylvania native, graduate of Penn State’s animal husbandry course, muck-walk-and-ride Maryland graduate, winning the Preakness with Funny Cide? His assistant/partner, Robin Smullen, a horse-crazy kid who grew up on an Oxford, Pa., farm, right there by his side? That’s gold. And there is that ending, the one I knew I didn’t have late into Preakness night, when I was scouring the Pimlico stakes barn, still searching, still shadowing Tagg, still picking at the granite, hoping for the ending, the bookend to the Funny Cide story. Owned by Sackatoga Stable, an improbable syndicate of friends, the New York-bred gelding had upset the Derby, dominated the Preakness and was three weeks away from immortality. For a trainer who had only watched the Preakness with his people – grooms, hotwalkers, exercise riders – from the top of the barn on the backside, who’d never been there before. And there it was, the perfect ending to an inexplicable story.
It goes like this…
Maryland jockey Nik Goodwin congratulated the hometown hero. A woman handed Tagg a straw hat to sign. Another woman said she loved him. Pimlico’s stable manager Gelo Hall shook his hand and said it as well as anyone.
“Now it’s all worth it,” Hall said. “We need those rich guys but this is good for all the little people. You know time and chance happens to us all.” And that’s what this one was about. Time and chance. And keeping belief that time and chance will happen to us all.
As the party was still going strong, owner Jack Knowlton and Tagg had another business meeting.
“You have to come over to the Marriott,” Knowlton said to Tagg. “We’re all going over and want you to be there.”
“Jack, I was up at 4:30 this morning while you were sleeping,” Tagg said. “And I’m going to be looking at 2-year-olds at Timonium at 7 in the morning while you all are sleeping. And then I’ll be up the next morning…”
Knowlton nodded his head and smiled. Tagg nodded his head and smiled. One went to the Marriott, the other went to bed. Both at the very top of the game.
I still love that ending.
It’s quintessential Tagg, unwavering in his work ethic and unbudgeable in his dedication to the craft.
I looked through the archives some more and found snippets, slivers of Tagg’s personality, his persona during the journey from riding Nalanx to working for Hall of Famer Frank Whiteley to begging for stalls at Pimlico, to building a reputation as a turf trainer who could strike New York like a stealth bomber to hammering his shingle on the toughest racing circuit in the country.
“Hell yeah, I paid my dues. It’s nice, everybody’s been nice. It’s been a good trip. I’m not sure how to elaborate on it. It seemed like they really truly were rooting for us,” Tagg said about that 2003 Triple Crown run. “I had so many people call and tell me they were falling off their couch, screaming and hollering and falling off the balcony. Everybody sounded so sincere about it. It wasn’t just like, ‘Uh, great, yeah.’ It was really, really sincere. Other people who have been trying just as hard, working just as hard seemed like they were really happy for us. It’s been a nice experience. I didn’t know anybody liked me. I didn’t. Maybe they don’t, I don’t know, but it’s been a nice experience.”
And then one about the other guys, the trainers who tread a different path, cut a different swath to the top.
“I admire Frankel, Baffert and Lukas. They’re super for the game, super at what they do and they get the job done, but I was never able to attract owners like they do,” Tagg said. “I have lovely people that I train for but I never had owners that put the money in like they do. They get 20 Funny Cides a year to fool with. They don’t have to lay awake worrying if he’s going to have an ankle in the morning. They probably do but they don’t have to quite as much because they have more opportunity. So when you get something like this, it’s a big thrill. What you hope for. We just don’t have quite as much cream to raise to the top.”
As my dad said, Tagg could be fiery. He’s been fiery with us a few times, once when he thought we wrote if Funny Cide ran in the Travers, they’d sell more Funny Cide beer.
“I don’t train horses to sell beer,” he snapped as he rode past on his pony.
What? What? I scurried to the paper rack and re-read my column in that day’s Saratoga Special, it didn’t say that he trains horses to sell beer.
“Did you read it? Did you read it?” I snapped as he rode back to his barn.
I guess we can be fiery, too. He rode past a set later and nodded, that was it. So, I asked him about it, about his irascibility, about his gruffness. Like always, Tagg didn’t dance.
“I’m easy to get along with. I get along with Robin all right. I like things done right and I’m kinda fussy about that. I guess I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I’m not as hard to get along with as I was 10, 20 years ago. I was pretty hard to get along with then,” Tagg said. “I guess some people think I’m still hard to get along with. I’ve had people quit me, grooms, hotwalkers, riders. I’ve had everybody quit me and say, ‘You’re just impossible to get along with. There’s better jobs out there than this ------- place.’ They’d walk out and three or four weeks later they come back and ask for a job. I’d say, ‘What the hell do you want a job for?’ They’d say, ‘I don’t like the way he does things. You do things right.’ That always made me feel good, so I kept being a bastard. I just like things done the way I want them done.”
Perhaps a bastard on the outside and perhaps that’s by design, his shell, his defense. Then bring an old friend past his Saratoga barn, just stop by to see the one who got out, the one who made it out of Maryland, the one who made it to the show. Some years, it’s Dad. We stop by the Morning Line Kitchen, they talk about old times, although I’ve never heard either one mention Nalanx and Rolling Rock. One year, it was Joe Aitcheson Jr. The Hall of Fame jockey asked if we could stop by Barclay Tagg’s barn, we drove the golf cart to the apron of Tagg’s barn and lingered, waiting to catch Tagg’s eye.
“I doubt he’ll remember me,” Aitcheson said, as we waited.
Tagg jumped off his pony and shook Joe’s hand and smiled like they were in the jocks’ room after the 1970 Colonial Cup, Joe winning the first $100,000 jump race in history aboard Top Bid and Tagg, dressed by then, after finishing second on Shod Over (to Aitcheson on future Hall of Famer Tuscalee) and fifth on Summer Crop on the undercard. Aitcheson won 26 races that year, Tagg won seven. A year later, he was done. Like two old friends at the end of the bar, the stories flowed.
There’s that one about Kathy Kusner flying a plane to a race meet in the hills. The three-seat puddle jumper is barely rising above the puddles. It’s lurching and diving, Kusner’s turning nobs, fiddling controls. The first woman to ride in the Maryland Hunt Cup is as brave as they get and she’s getting rattled. Tagg is clutching the arm rests from the co-pilot seat, legs locked against the floorboards, good thing he had been reducing, there’s nothing in his stomach. Aitcheson, who’s already ridden more jump winners than anyone in history, is wedged between two tack bags in the backseat. Quiet on a good day, Aitcheson hasn’t said a word, he’s ridden thousands of jumpers and now he’s going to die in a small airplane. He reaches between the seat and taps Kusner on the elbow, hands her Tagg’s riding helmet.
“Sorry, Barclay, I don’t have one for you.”
Tagg turns and there’s Aitcheson, his helmet buckled like he’s riding out of the paddock on Tuscalee.
They survived the plane ride and laughed about it years later while enjoying a morning at Saratoga.
Tagg hopped back on his pony and we drove off.
“Barclay was a good rider,” Aitcheson said. “A good rider.”
I asked Aitcheson why he didn’t make it bigger in the sport.
“He’s his own man,” Aitcheson said.
Tagg straight-shot about Nalanx back in 1971, about Funny Cide in 2003, Tiz the Law in 2020 and every horse in between. He didn’t know any other way, still doesn’t. It’s lost him jobs along the way, but it definitely got him one.
Bonner Young and her brother, George Rowand, were looking for a trainer for a 2-year-old purchased by their friend Tyson Gilpin. Sandra Forbush had a filly, Nothing Sweeter, with Tagg at the time and liked what he was doing. She suggested the scuffling trainer who had trained 24 winners in 1984 and was on his way to training 40 in 1985, by far his best year in a hardscrabble career.
Spruced Up Gal arrived at Tagg’s barn and later was set to breeze with two other fillies. Young and Rowand, neophytes at best, met the trainer and the filly at the barn, then drove to the front side of Laurel Park to watch her breeze for the first time.
“We were so excited,” Young said.
Spruced Up Gal, a daughter of Spruce Needles purchased for $14,000 from the Illinois May 2-year-old Sale, finished second of three.
“Oh, man, that’s pretty good,” Young said to Rowand.
Rowand nodded, encouraged.
They drove back to the barn to get their trainer’s take.
“Well, what did you think, Mr. Tagg?”
“Well, the horse who beat you will never win a race and the one you beat can’t outrun a cow.”
Young was taken aback.
“Those were his exact words,” she said in July.
On the drive home, she thought about it some more.
“This is neat, this man told me the truth. This man is honest.”
Spruced Up Gal won two claimers at Pimlico and wound up at Charles Town. Young? She wound up with Tagg as her trainer, her friend.
“She was a cheap claimer,” Young said. “But she got us to Barclay.”
For the next 35 years. And still going strong.
“He could have told us whatever and bled us dry, if he was that kind of trainer. But he wasn’t, he told the truth. I wouldn’t be in the business without Barclay,” Young said. “He’s more like a brother now than a trainer. He’s part of the family. My granddaughter calls him Uncle Barc.”
And as with family, there have been moments when the law needed to be laid. As Miss Josh, a homebred daughter of Nasty and Bold was winning 14 races, including the Grade 1 Gamely and four other graded stakes for Young and Rowand, Tagg allowed past wrongs to interfere with a present right.
“I know you’re going to take her away from me anyway…” Tagg said as they mapped out missions to Hollywood Park, Arlington Park and Louisiana Downs.
Was it the sting of losing Roo Art? Purchased by Tagg for $15,500 at Timonium, the son of Buckaroo won his first four for Tagg and wound up with D. Wayne Lukas. Tagg scoffs at the slight, but it sure still hurts.
“I know you’re going to take her away from me anyway…”
He said it more than once. And once too many.
“Look, the day you’re not training for me, you’re dead or I’m dead,” Young said. “So don’t ever mention it to me again.”
“I didn’t want just a trainer, I wanted a horseman,” Young said. “He’s a horseman. He’s not just a trainer. He’s got instincts.”
Before Funny Cide, Tagg had won two Grade 1 stakes. Miss Josh in the 1991 Gamely and Royal Mountain Inn in the 1994 Man o’ War. Both hail from Highland Mills, a filly trained by Edward Daniels Jr., one of three trainers ever employed by Young (Charlie Hadry had one horse for her). Tagg engineered national raids with Miss Josh and Royal Mountain Inn from his Maryland base, stamping himself as a turf trainer who could pick spots better than John Wayne in a saloon. He moved to New York for good in 2001.
“I’m just happy he has Tiz the Law,” Young said. “He picked the horse out, he believes in him, he loves him,” Young said. “It’s nice to see this success at this point of his career.”
As Gelo Hall said in the dying light of the 2003 Preakness.
“You know time and chance happens to us all.”
For Tagg, a horsemen’s horseman, it happened in 2003 and again in 2020.
Tiz the Law lands Belmont, eyes next step on 2020 path
Barclay Tagg had never sounded more confident. It was the night before the rescheduled Belmont Stakes June 20 and the trainer, always realistic and sometimes pessimistic, talked about Tiz the Law, the once-beaten favorite for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
“It is what is, the only thing I don’t like about it is they’re not going to give it full credit, they’ll have an asterisk with it or something like that,” Tagg said of the shortened Belmont Stakes (and perhaps the Triple Crown). “I would have loved for it to stay at a mile-and-a-half or even a mile-and-a-quarter, just trained up to it. It would have still been a classic distance, but that’s where we are.”
The next day, they were exactly where they wanted, in the winner’s circle after 9 furlongs of the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes. Asterisk be damned.
Tiz the Law used his natural cruising speed to establish an outside stalking spot, strolled to the lead when jockey Manny Franco asked and cruised home by 3 ¾ lengths over Dr Post and Max Player. It was that simple.
“He just puts his little head down and rolls into it. He just kind of chugs along, you think he’s going to get beat and he just chugs away from them. He doesn’t look like he really starts reaching out and running, he just keeps going and runs away from them,” Tagg said. “It looked to me like everything just worked like clockwork. That’s the way the horse likes to run, that’s the position he likes to be in. Manny knows the horse very well, we discussed it very quickly before I put him up on the horse, I felt very confident that Manny would ride him that way.”
Owned by Sackatoga Stable, Tiz the Law finished in 1:46.53. Bred by Twin Creeks Farm and sold by Sequel New York, Tiz the Law cost $110,000 at the Fasig-Tipton New York-bred yearling sale at Saratoga in 2018. Tagg and partner/assistant Robin Smullen picked out the white-faced colt and convinced Sackatoga’s Jack Knowlton to stretch.
“Barclay, Robin and I go through the catalog for the New York-bred sale, that’s our go-to sale given the budget we typically work with, 110 was probably the last bid. I think we had him pegged at 100, fortunately we went that extra 10 thousand,” Knowlton said. “We usually have a couple of tables of partners for dinner at the sale, they’re enthusiastic and we’ll push the envelope a little more, which is a good thing.”
Tiz the Law won his debut at Saratoga last summer, missed the Hopeful with a sore shin and won his second start, the Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont Park. Skipping the Breeders’ Cup, Tiz the Law traveled for the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs where nothing went right, he wound up third, an undefeated season and a championship up in smoke. Freshened, he returned with facile wins in the Grade 3 Holy Bull and Grade 1 Florida Derby, which should have primed him for the Kentucky Derby. The coronavirus pandemic blew that up, put everything on hold and Tagg stayed the course, breezing him once a week while he waited for a plan. Eventually, tracks announced plans. In order of announcement, the Kentucky Derby in September, the Preakness in October, a shortened Belmont Stakes in June, the Travers in early August . . . that sounds about right.
Tagg simply trained his horse.
“I couldn’t see any sense in changing. I could have turned him out for two weeks, brought him back in and started over again but I thought, ‘Why do it? You don’t know when they’re going to open up.’ And we really didn’t. We had no idea, not with enough time to get a horse ready,” Tagg said. “We had to just keep on the plan. I didn’t do anything really strenuous with him, I didn’t hook him up with Citation and try and outrun him down the stretch to get him fit. I thought we’d just use common sense and brought him along the right way and it worked out.”
Next stop, the Travers at Saratoga Aug. 8.
“I’d like to get the Travers, too, I’ve never won the Travers, it’s a classic,” Tagg said. “The old classic New York races were the ones that determined the champions every year.”
A Belmont and Travers? No asterisk there.