Day 19: Work in progress — Profilia

Barclay Tagg astride Funny Cide. Photograph by Barbara D. Livingston.

Barclay Tagg astride Funny Cide. Photograph by Barbara D. Livingston.

I have begun to read through profiles to select those I will include in my forthcoming anthology, working title Profilia. (Please suggest something better. Please.) This one is almost sure to make the cut: Barclay Tagg, thoroughbred trainer who nearly won the Triple Crown in 2003 with a big horse you may remember—Funny Cide.

How the piece opens:

Barclay Tagg slips into a stall in a barn at Belmont Park race track, near Elmhurst, N.Y. At 4:45 in the morning, Tagg, a trainer of thoroughbreds, is at work ahead of the sun but not ahead of nearby roosters, who are in full cry. He eases up to a filly named Highland Hope and slides his hands up and down the horse’s slender legs, feeling for heat—a sign of inflammation, perhaps an injury. He checks the flex of each ankle and knee. Highland Hope swings her head down and Tagg nudges it away with his arm. “Now and then one of them will reach around and bite you,” he says. “When she bites you on your bald head, it hurts. There’s a lot of nerves up there.” He stands and runs his hands over the horse’s glutes, to feel whether the muscles are knotted. If they’re sore, the horse will flinch. Tagg finds no problems and rubs the filly’s head. Then he moves to the next stall.

Barn 6, at the corner of Man o’ War Avenue and Count Fleet Road near Belmont’s track, holds most of Tagg’s horses. A strip of tape at each stall identifies the occupant. Hypnotist. Army Boots. Silver Clipper. Andy Boy. Wed in Dixie. Wild About Debbie. Funny Cide.

In 2000, the crop of thoroughbred foals numbered 37,587. Only 16 of them made it to the starting gate of the 2003 Kentucky Derby. Only one, of course, crossed the finish line first, and that one was a big chestnut gelding named Funny Cide. After more than 30 years of near ceaseless work, Barclay Tagg had won the world’s most famous race on his first try. Now, in the dark, Tagg runs his practiced hands down four of the most valuable legs in America, and finds no problems. No injuries sustained overnight. No ill effects from yesterday’s workout. No loose joints, no bubble on a knee, no tendons starting to bow. Good to go for another risky day. Every day is risky in this business. “Anybody who trains a horse is a pessimist, whether they admit it nor not,” Tagg says. “People say, ‘How does it feel to win the Kentucky Derby?’ Well, it makes you feel like maybe the whole 30 years wasn’t wasted.”