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Tim Layden
April 16, 2007
All Bizness
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April 16, 2007

Horse Racing

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All Bizness

With his win in the Wood Memorial, a focused Nobiz Like Shobiz took center stage among Kentucky Derby contenders

EARLY IN 2006 trainer Barclay Tagg went to a farm in central Florida to take stock of the racehorses that would soon be under his care. One of them was Nobiz Like Shobiz, a colt so impressive that Tagg immediately pulled out his cellphone and called Nobiz's owner, Elizabeth Valando, at her winter home in Palm Beach. "Mrs. Valando," Tagg said to the widow of former Broadway music publishing tycoon Tommy Valando, "if this isn't a Triple Crown horse, I don't know what one looks like." Never before had Tagg so swiftly called an owner to praise a horse's potential, and never had he touted a 2-year-old so highly.

More than a year has passed, and Tagg, who won the first two legs of the 2003 Triple Crown with the popular gelding Funny Cide, was right about Nobiz Like Shobiz. Following a win in the Wood Memorial at frigid Aqueduct last Saturday, Nobiz is one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Yet heading into the final prep races—this Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Kentucky's Keeneland Race Course, and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs—no horse has separated himself from the pack.

Scat Daddy, one of prolific trainer Todd Pletcher's small army of potential Kentucky Derby starters, has won five of his eight lifetime starts, including the Florida Derby on March 31. On the same day as the Wood, Pletcher's fast-improving Cowtown Cat won the Illinois Derby, and Tiago, a half-brother to long-shot 2005 Derby champ Giacomo, was the upset winner of the Santa Anita Derby.

So the Kentucky Derby picture remains muddled, which makes Tagg's deft handling of Nobiz Like Shobiz particularly significant. After winning two of his three starts as a 2-year-old, Nobiz beat Scat Daddy in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 3 but then ran erratically and finished third in the Fountain of Youth on March 3. In that race Nobiz ducked in on the straightaway, apparently spooked by crowd noise in the homestretch.

To combat what he called the colt's "immaturity," Tagg put blinkers on Nobiz and cotton in his ears. Nobiz responded by dismissing Pletcher's highly regarded Any Given Saturday and holding off the fast-closing Sightseeing to win the Wood by half a length in a relatively pedestrian 1:49.46.

During Funny Cide's run Tagg was often terse with the media, squirming under the spotlight as he tried to manage a high-strung horse and 10 fun-loving owners. "I got a reputation for being a grump," he says. With a calmer horse and nine fewer owners, he is better prepared this time.

After the Fountain of Youth, a writer reminded Tagg that football teams often prepare for hostile crowds by pumping loud noise through speakers during practices. "Maybe I can get people to honk their car horns on the turn when [Nobiz] works in the morning," said Tagg, laughing. However, he is clearly serious about making a deeper footprint in horse racing history. "When you win one Derby, people can say it was a fluke," he said a week before the Wood. "They don't say it when you win two."

ONLY AT SI.COM More horse racing news and analysis from Tim Layden.