In 1984, my dad sent me (and a van driver) to run a weird, gawky horse named Family at Laurel Park while my dad went somewhere else to run a different (probably less weird and gawky) horse. Dad said he’d get somebody to saddle Family, since back then you needed an assistant trainer’s or trainer’s license to tack up a runner in the paddock. No problem. The van driver drove, I did the rest – including my first application of rundown bandages for a race. In the paddock with Family, I looked for our would-be saddler and saw no one I knew. There was a valet, me, the van driver, the horse and an annoyed paddock judge.
Right about the time he starting really letting me have it for being unprepared and potentially holding up the race, he spotted Barclay Tagg leaning on the railing outside the paddock.
“Barclay, can you tack up a horse?”
“Sure, I guess so.”
“Hey, whose horse is this?”
“Oh, shit, I was supposed to tack up this horse.”
Tagg shrugged, laughed, set the saddle, tightened the girths, checked on stuff and legged up the jockey. I just held the shank and hoped the paddock judge stopped yelling. Family won. The van driver and I are the only ones in the winner’s circle. We never saw Tagg after the two-minute exchange in the paddock.
And 36 years later, Tagg won the Belmont Stakes with Tiz The Law during a pandemic.
Tagg used to ride steeplechase races for Jonathan Sheppard, Ronnie Houghton, Pop Dixon, plenty of others. The future winner of all three Triple Crown races (one of four active trainers who can say that) used to stable in Maryland, used to be a guy my dad called to saddle a horse. Between riding jumpers and fully starting out on his own in Maryland, Tagg worked for Frank Whiteley (a legend) and rode Ruffian (also a legend) in the morning. Tagg trained his first winner in 1972, and built a reputation on attention to detail, a conservative approach, quality over quantity and doing things his way and not yours. The stable didn’t pass 100 starts in a single season until 1980, and still hasn’t won 100 races in a year. But along the way came 1,584 wins, a career-high 81 in 1986 and more than $1 million in earnings in all but three of the last 35 years (2020 included). And those three were $900,000-plus.
The barn got big enough to have stalls at Fair Hill Training Center for a while, but now just sticks to New York or Florida. Some guys’ horses have more starts in a month than Tagg’s do in a year. He and partner/assistant trainer Robin Smullen do much of the work themselves (she still rides, he’s still on the pony). There are grooms, riders, hotwalkers, a foreman, but no barn manager, no stable agent, no client-schmoozer. Tagg still goes to the sales, and tries to pick out bargains – Funny Cide, Realm, Tiz The Law are three. You could do a lot worse than just standing behind him and making one more bid – if you could tell he was bidding.
We cross paths with Tagg and Smullen regularly at Saratoga each summer. The horses are always in the same barns behind the Morning Like Kitchen toward Greentree on the main track. Everything is green and white – stall guards, saddle stands, buckets, tubs, brush boxes, bandage holders, saddle towels, helmet covers, chairs, plastic chains across the shedrow when it’s closed. They clean tack at Tagg’s, with sponges and saddle soap and stuff. They don’t just hose it off or dunk it in a bucket. They groom horses, hose them, stand them in ice, ride them all over the barn area, let them graze. You get the feeling Tagg and Smullen would do their work even if there were no races. They’d get up and take care of horses all day long, just because they like it.
Over the years, I’ve met some class acts around that barn.
Sky Blazer blew me away every time I saw him. Big, long, classic bay. The kind of horse Whiteley would have loved. He somehow never won a stakes, but did win six races and earn $400,000.
One day at the barn, Tagg made sure I got a look at Caroline Thomas. The 2-year-old chestnut filly was standing on the wash pad. We walked over close, Tagg made me stand up next to her and said something to the effect of, “She hasn’t started yet, but I think she can really run.” She won a Grade 2, and earned $406,000.
While riding by in a golf cart one morning, I saw Smullen on a stocky chestnut around the walking ring. My jaw dropped, and before I could get out a “Who is that?” she rode him right up to me. Wide chest, compact body, huge hind end, big blaze, chestnut and white hair everywhere, he put his whole head and most of his neck in the cart with me and said hello while rummaging around in my backpack, my jacket pockets, the cupholders, whatever. I remember calling him a middle linebacker of a horse in a story. He won the Cigar Mile, the Kelso, earned $708,000, became a stallion.
The cool thing about Tagg’s horses is they’re all different. Behind those screens and webbings in stall doorways, there are sharp 2-year-olds, geldings, sprinters, fillies, mares, stall-walkers, nappers, New York-bred sales purchases and homebreds from some of the best breeders in the game. Tagg trains them all, gets the most out of them. It’s been the same for decades – Domerilla (look him up someday) to Tiz The Law.
I’m not sure Tagg does this with everybody, but he’s done it to me a few times: In the middle of a conversation, he’ll stop and say, “Everybody wants to write it, but don’t tell anyone how old I am. Nobody sends a 2-year-old to a trainer my age.”
Yesterday, in the aftermath of winning the Belmont Stakes, NBC said Tagg was 82. Go ahead and send him a 2-year-old.
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Barclay Tagg and Brandon Hill jump a fence at Fair Hill in 1969. Douglas Lees photo