Kirkpatrick & Co Presents In Their Care: Smullen Is The Glue That Holds Tagg Operation Together - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Kirkpatrick & Co Presents In Their Care: Smullen Is The Glue That Holds Tagg Operation Together

Tiz the Law schooling at Belmont Park, with Smullen at left. Photo courtesy NYRA

Robin Smullen was 17 years old when she was preparing Barnabas, her finest horse, for a show. He was as responsive as ever to her cues – until he could respond no longer.

Barnabas collapsed beneath Smullen due to an aneurysm. Nothing could be done except to comfort him. He died in the arms of a teenager with whom he had enjoyed such a wonderful connection, his head nestled in her lap.

Smullen was devastated. She remained in her bedroom at her family's Oxford, Pa., farm for three days. She sold her three or four remaining show horses. She did not know how she would go on.

“At that point, I was thinking I wanted to give up on horses completely,” she said.

She soon realized how strong a hold horses can have on someone who had been around them for as long as she could remember. There is a pull that is undeniable. And perhaps inescapable.

“I was born into horses. That is all I ever knew,” said Smullen. “A lot of people who get into horses and leave, they always come back.”

Come back she did, and Thoroughbred racing is so much better for that. As an assistant to Barclay Tagg and his life partner, Smullen has been instrumental in the development of a pair of outstanding New York-bred 3-year-olds for modest Sackatoga Stable.

The gelded Funny Cide swept the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 2003. Tiz the Law looms as a prime contender in the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 7 at Keeneland Race Course. He could emerge as Horse of the Year if he adds his first test against older horses to his authoritative Florida Derby, Belmont and Travers triumphs.

Smullen aboard Funny Cide. Photo courtesy Robin Smullen

“Robin is really the glue that holds Barclay Tagg Racing Stable together,” said Jack Knowlton, who has overseen Sackatoga since he established it with five high school friends in 1995.

Tagg and Smullen have shown they can accomplish a lot with relatively little. Funny Cide was purchased privately for the comparatively meager sum of $75,000 as a 2-year-old in training. Tagg made a winning bid of $110,000 to bring home Tiz the Law as a yearling at Fasig-Tipton's 2018 Saratoga Sale.

Smullen is proud of the keen eyes they bring to sales.

“We've picked out so many good horses and people don't realize,” she said. “A lot of people could have bought Funny Cide, but we did. You can't see that he's going to win the Derby, but you can see that a horse can run.”

Confrontation, a $35,000 purchase as a 2-year-old, and Realm, a $75,000 yearling, provide two more examples of diamonds in the rough that the tag team of Tagg and Smullen discovered. Each horse surpassed half a million dollars in earnings.

Smullen has been aboard tractable Tiz the Law throughout his development, just as she was the headstrong Funny Cide. When she talks, Knowlton and Tagg listen.

“That is invaluable to have somebody with her knowledge,” Knowlton said. “If there is one little thing that is maybe bothering him, she'll identify it. She may know what it is or, if not, she will work with the veterinarian or the blacksmith or the chiropractor or the masseuse.”

When Smullen detected upper body stiffness in Tiz the Law following his loss to Authentic in the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby, she showed her unwavering commitment to always putting the horse first by urging that the colt skip the $1 million Preakness, the final leg of this year's Triple Crown due to the pandemic. Knowlton abided by that advice. He also was on board when she and Tagg opposed shipping the colt across the country to Santa Anita for last year's Juvenile despite a fees-paid berth in the demanding $2 million race courtesy of a Champagne romp.

Smullen and Tagg have long enjoyed a relationship most couples would envy.

“We went to dinner,” Tagg likes to say, “and she never left.”

One of the keys to their staying power is their ability to leave work behind once long days at the barn and the track are done. They currently oversee approximately 20 horses.

“The good part about Barclay is he leaves the barn at the barn and then home is home,” Smullen said. “If you don't get along with the way you make a decision on a certain horse or a certain race, you leave that at the barn.”

Doswell, a quirky 5-year-old that is fairly new to their stable, represents a constant source of disagreement.

“He's a little bit of a head case, but I try to get along with him and compromise on things,” said Smullen. She gallops Doswell each morning; she is the one aboard for his antics once his training is done. Tagg would like to see the veteran walk back to the barn. The gelded son of Giant's Causeway, bred and owned by Joseph Allen, has other ideas.

“He doesn't like to walk off the track,” Smullen said. “He's jigging and carrying on the whole time, so I just jog him home.”

Although Tagg is routinely dismayed by that unusual sight, Smullen's willingness to live with that idiosyncrasy appears to be reaping rewards. After going winless through his first five career starts, Doswell is perfect in two turf starts for Tagg and Smullen. He led at every call when he finally broke his maiden on Aug. 8 at Saratoga Race Course. He displayed the same front-running command in capturing  an allowance race on Oct. 2 at Belmont Park.

With each of those victories, Smullen is reminded of the rewards that working with horses can bring. And she is grateful she persevered long after the beloved Barnabas took his last breath.

Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.

If you wish to suggest a backstretch worker as a potential subject for In Their Care, please send an email to [email protected] that includes the person's name and contact information in addition to a brief description of the employee's background.

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