“Sorry about yesterday, sometimes you get this thing so jammed up I don’t pay any attention to it.”
It was 5:53 Friday night, the Belmont Stakes loomed in 23 hours, 49 minutes and Barclay Tagg had unjammed his phone to call The Special. We had left a message Thursday and added a “missed call” Friday morning, another Friday afternoon and still another Friday evening.
We had faith we would talk. Until we didn’t. Eventually, we wrote the Belmont Stakes preview with reheated Tagg quotes from May 1, instead of fresh ones from June 19. It worked, but it was forced, Ellio’s when you wanted King Umberto. The story was in the system, edited, proofed and laid out on a page.
Then Tagg called. We spoke for 11 minutes and ripped up the first version of Tiz Time.
That’s journalism in 2020.
In any other year, we would have gingerly, tepidly, stalked Tagg’s Belmont Park barn Thursday, Friday. It’s the reporter’s dance, venture to the edge of the moat, be seen, but not heard, hang around long enough for the trainer to realize that you’re not invading, but you’re not leaving.
It’s easier in person.
But there is little in-person in 2020. Instead, we ply our trade from afar (although Tom Law did manage to watch the Belmont with – or at least near – Tagg), waiting for a trainer to call back as hours tick to deadline, to the Belmont Stakes, the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Friday night, Tagg leaned across the moat and talked horses.
“He’s doing great…” he began.
Tagg’s confidence was palpable. We didn’t need to look into his steely eyes, didn’t need to watch Tiz The Law gallop or graze, here was a horse trainer who was content with his horse. There is nothing better. And nothing so rare.
A day later, Tiz The Law did exactly what he was meant to do, did exactly what Tagg expected him to do, thrashing nine rivals in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. The son of Constitution used his effortless 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. Owned by Sackatoga Stable, Tiz The Law finished 9 furlongs in 1:46.53.
Tagg’s words from the night before echoed as Tiz The Law slowed to a jog on the clubhouse turn. Words we didn’t use, partly because they sounded too confident, too bullish, like it was a forgone conclusion.
“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. He can either do it or he can’t do it. If he can, it’ll be pretty nice, but I don’t think he’ll get the full credit for it.”
See, why we didn’t use those quotes the night before the Belmont Stakes?
Now, nearly a week later, we’ll use them and give him full credit.
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. 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.”
Sometimes, it’s the whole 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 in May. The coronavirus pandemic blew that up, put everything on hold and Tagg stayed the course with his once-beaten colt, 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.
“He’s a neat little horse who does his job. I guess he’s straightforward, we haven’t let him vary much,” Tagg said. “We keep an iron hand on him all the time. I have my groom, he’s a big, husky guy, he walks out with him and hands him to me with the pony, I take him the first half-mile on the warm-up jog, turn him loose and pick him up at the other end and bring him back to the groom and he walks him home. And that’s every day. And Robin’s on him. He doesn’t have much chance to screw around.”
Tiz The Law didn’t screw around, galloping every day, breezing once a week and waiting for Tagg to loosen the iron hand. That day came June 20 and Tiz The Law spun like a top on a playroom floor, putting Tagg, Smullen and Sackatoga squarely back into the Triple Crown 17 years after Funny Cide took the Derby and Preakness before succumbing to a five-week vice (and Empire Maker) in the Belmont Stakes.
A former steeplechase jockey who built his own ladder from Maryland to New York, Tagg is enigmatic when it comes to horses, somehow keeping it simple and complex all at the same time. He dismissed any notion of difficulty or distraction when it came to putting Tiz The Law in a holding pattern.
“We did pretty much the same thing with Funny Cide. Work him once a week and wait for the new race,” Tagg said. “It can’t kill them to work once a week, they’re racehorses. Unless they have problems or something, he’s a nice, sound horse. If he had something wrong with him, why you’d back off until it got better and get him back in the routine again. That’s it.”
There is no “that’s it” in Tagg’s barn. He and Smullen are as precise as cellists, holding onto the horsemanship skills and sportsmanship tenets they learned early. An independent bookstore in an age of Amazon, they aren’t posting training reports on barclaytagracing.com – but it is a cool website – and they aren’t relying on assistants to tell them the color of the new colt in the last stall in the satellite barn. Throwbacks? As far as you can throw.
“Robin is a gem. She’s just a gem. She has a memory that you just can’t imagine, her ability, I’ll have a colt come in that everybody’s scared of, he’s already dumped three people and she’ll say, ‘Just put me on him tomorrow.’ She gets on him and straightens him out and everything goes fine,” Tagg said. “She can get on any horse and tell you in two seconds, ‘He’s not moving right behind, it’s actually it’s his left hind…’ You bring the vet over and he says, ‘Well, it’s his left hind.’ And she’s never wrong. She’s never wrong. Best horsewoman, best horseman I’ve ever seen.”
Their routine barely changed through three months of quarantine and social distancing while prepping Tiz The Law from their Palm Meadows winter base.
“We went to work every day, we trained the horses every day, we went home and stayed in our little house at night, cooked out on the deck, sat in the breeze and read the paper and went to bed, nothing changed,” Tagg said. “It’s what we do. That’s all we do. It’s a pretty boring life.”
Until a Tiz The Law comes along. Again, Tagg keeps it simple.
“He’s very, very fast so you’ve got to take care of him, you have to check his feet 10 times a day, check his ankles, check his tendons, check everything, make sure nothing’s sneaking up on you,” Tagg said. “It’s just simple common sense. We don’t turn him loose and let him go bucking across the infield.”
No, they turn him loose on race day. So far, he’s 5-for-6 and the only horse capable of winning the 2020 Triple Crown, a 15-week, upside-down, uncharted journey that inexplicably could involve the Travers as a second leg. Could it be the Quadruple Crown? You heard it here first.
“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…”
This year, the 1 ¼-mile Travers is Aug. 8 – four weeks before the Kentucky Derby. All being well, Tiz The Law will be there.
And somewhere in the middle of an 11-minute conversation about the Belmont Stakes, Tagg changes the conversation and asks about your family, talks about life, reminisces about old friends and new worries.
“I’m glad your family is all good, it’s such a blessing if you can get through something like this and nobody gets sick…” Tagg said. “I’ve gotten so many people wishing me luck, I’ve never had anybody wish me luck like this.”
And as the conversation wanes, we wish him luck.
“OK, babe,” Tagg said. “We’ll try.”