SARATOGA SPRINGS — Jockey Manny Franco could barely contain himself.
But he did.
He did what he was told.
It may have seemed like a small thing, but there are no small things, not when you’ve been training Thoroughbreds for decades and are trying — again — to win a Triple Crown.
Franco had just won the Belmont Stakes aboard Tiz the Law on June 20, and the colt did so in such commanding fashion that Franco’s body was a tight spring looking to uncoil. But he allowed himself one sharp, short fist pump, that’s it, and continued on with the gallop-out.
I had a chat with trainer Barclay Tagg on July 14, two days before opening day for the Saratoga Race Course meet, during which he went on a tightly coiled rant about jockeys flamboyantly celebrating in the saddle after big victories.
His answer on this topic lasted longer than the 1:46 it took Tiz the Law to crush the Belmont, and if you’ve experienced an interview with Tagg, the word “expansive” usually doesn’t apply.
But on this morning he got rolling on a topic that goes deep to the heart of his profession, a job he’s been engaged in since before he saddled his first winner in 1972. He can be crusty, cantankerous, pessimistic … but Tagg’s attention to detail is unflagging and is a big reason why Tiz the Law has rolled along flawlessly through a training and racing schedule thrown well off course by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He’s just the consummate horseman,” Sackatoga Stable operating manager Jack Knowlton said. “Fifty-one weeks a year, that’s all he and Robin do, all day. Obviously, he’s very talented. He doesn’t have a lot of the opportunities that the big-name trainers have, but he’s proven — twice — with us that when he gets a talented horse, he absolutely knows what to do with it. That’s what I like. It’s all business. For both of them, it’s all about the horse. Nothing else counts.
“Old school, for sure.”
“Robin” is Robin Smullen, Tagg’s assistant trainer, who used to gallop Funny Cide in the mornings when he took Sackatoga to the brink of the 2003 Triple Crown, only to finish third to Empire Maker in the Belmont.
The Tagg Team also includes Smullen’s niece, Heather, who has been galloping Tiz the Law since he was down in Florida for the winter, and Juan Barajas, Tiz the Law’s omnipresent groom.
“He [Tiz the Law] is fine. You have to know him. He’ll bite you if he doesn’t know you,” Tagg said. “If you surprise him … He is [friendly] with Juan. I come back and check the horses at night and walk down the row, and he’s laying there asleep and Juan is at the picnic table right next to his stall. He knows Juan better than anybody. Juan has been with me over 25 years. Robin, too.”
Not every trainer has the time or inclination to go back to the barn at night to check on the horses; Tagg is one of them.
He occasionally gets a nice graded stakes winner, but Funny Cide and Tiz the Law represent by far his most prominent moments in the spotlight.
That’s a 17-year bridge built on a mutual sense of loyalty and trust between trainer and owners.
“Oklahoma track, leaning over the rail one day, he came over and I just started chatting with him a little bit,” Knowlton said. “That was back in the day when we only had a couple horses, 1998 or ’99. Then it was 2000 that we decided because our horses weren’t doing any good and Timmy [Kelly] wasn’t having any luck, Gus [Williams] and I said we need to make a change and ended up calling Barclay.
“Certainly, he’s come a long ways in terms of dealing with you guys [media]. The pressure he had with Funny Cide, winning the first two races, and you’ve got a Triple Crown coming up in three weeks, it’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot quieter now. There are a lot fewer people around. He’s very, very comfortable in this environment, more than having 50 people with cameras and all that around. But he’s handled it great, and hopefully keep the run going to the Travers. We’d love to win that race.”
Indeed, Tagg has been getting in some good zingers with the media, such as it is in these times of access limitations and restrictions.
A byproduct of the pandemic is that fewer stable workers relocated from Belmont Park for Saratoga, leaving some barns short of help.
Tagg mentioned that his barn was down one person, and when my friend and colleague Tim Wilkin of the Times Union volunteered to fill in the next morning, Tagg retorted, “When’s the last time you worked?”, which remains one of the funnier lines we’ve heard at the meet, from anybody.
But at the post-Belmont Stakes press conference, Tagg admitted — “not to be a jerk or anything” — that he, for one, didn’t mind the fact that the race was run without the hubbub and roaring noise of a full house of fans.
“Florida Derby, the Belmont Stakes … those days were nice and quiet and peaceful for the horses,” Tagg said. “I’ve got nothing to knock about it. I mean, I feel bad for the owners. But I didn’t have anything to do with the pandemic.”
There was no manual on how to handle the pandemic from a training standpoint, how to adjust to the track closures and race cancellations and postponements.
Horses who win the Florida Derby in late March, as Tiz the Law did, are in prime position to take a crack at the Kentucky Derby. That is, as long as it doesn’t get pushed four months into September.
“Barclay has done a fabulous job keeping this horse good for as long as he has,” Knowlton said. “We’ve got more months to go, but when you look at the plan we had to run in the two races in Florida. That happened. He was geared for the first Saturday in May coming out of the Florida Derby. Then the pandemic hit. We didn’t know for weeks when the next race was going to be, and Barclay had to do enough to keep him sharp so he could go on, if we heard that there was a race in three or four weeks.
“But it ended up being 11 or 12 weeks. And he had him ready for that. We know the horse can run off a layoff, but Barclay has just done a great job with him. You know, we really have a fresh horse. He’s run three times, and he’s run spectacularly, I think, in all three races. And we’re looking forward to the Travers.
“He’s got a mind for this game that has been crafted over 50 years being in it. He’s always a jump or two ahead of anyplace that I could be. So he knows what he’s doing, he knows the horse, he knows how to keep a horse happy.”
That was illustrated when Tagg, a former steeplechase jockey who still gets on the pony during training hours every day, reminds a rider not to pull a Tony Manero in the irons after a big win.
“Think about this: They’ve got tiny little legs. They’re meant to run fast,” Tagg said. “They just ran a mile and a quarter or a mile and an eighth or a mile and a half, with a saddle and a jock on them. They’re carrying 130 pounds, and different parts of the race they’re going to go 35, 40 miles an hour. And they land on one leg at a time. One, two, three, four. How hard is that on a horse’s legs?
“The horse is tired. Tired. I told him [Franco], I don’t want to see all that clowning around, BS like they do in England and all that. It’s too hard to get ’em to the races.”
“He takes the best care of the horses, I don’t care where you go on the backstretch, I defy you to find anybody who is more dedicated and spends more time at the barn checking on his horses to make sure they’re doing well,” Knowlton said.
Tagg said Tiz the Law is still improving and “still young at heart,” to which it was suggested, “Like you.”
He punctuates many of his answers with a chuckle at the end, but the laugh came first this time.