At 4, Funny Cide Enters a New Age
Folk Legend a Year Older, Wiser
By John Scheinman
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 14, 2004; Page D01
The Funny Cide Store in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., is closing down, the wine sold with the 2003 Kentucky Derby winner's imprimatur no longer is available, and when asked about the status of Funny Cide Beer, Sackatoga Stable spokesman Jackson Knowlton said wryly, "We're still drinking it."
Yet, while the Funny Cide phenomenon doesn't burn quite as brightly as during his storybook Triple Crown campaign a year ago, there still is plenty going on with the horse.
Contrary to popular belief among casual sports fans, life goes on for a racehorse after his 3-year-old season. A little more than a year after Funny Cide won the Preakness Stakes, and his jockey, Jose Santos, cleared his name in a scandal that briefly tarnished their victory in the Kentucky Derby, the humble working-class hero returns to Baltimore this afternoon to run in the historic Grade I $500,000 Pimlico Special.
Now 4, Funny Cide has been trying to make a name for himself among the upper echelon of older handicap horses. For Sackatoga Stable, composed of 10 upstate New York businessmen who pooled $22,000 to buy the horse then watched him go on to win $2.35 million and two of the biggest prizes in racing, the excitement hasn't worn off.
"For us, any time you're running in a half-million dollar stakes race it's pretty damn exciting," said Knowlton, who became the face of the Funny Cide team last year when, in the throes of the Seabiscuit revival, it seemed no one could get enough of the story of a cheap New York gelding toppling the mighty purebred, Empire Maker, to win the Kentucky Derby. "For guys like us, it's as exciting as life can be."
The Funny Cide Store might be closing, but the promotional wheels behind the horse continue to turn. A new book with a long title -- "Funny Cide: How a horse, a trainer, a jockey, and a bunch of high school buddies took on the sheiks and blue bloods . . . and won" (written by Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins) -- is nibbling on the fringes of the New York Times bestseller list. The Sackatoga team is out on a six-day book-signing tour that stops at Pimlico and Anne Arundel Mall this weekend, before heading to Dallas, Las Vegas and Seattle.
The estimable painter Leroy Neiman recently came out with a Funny Cide serigraph (a signed, limited edition of 350, priced at $3,400), and the Palms Casino has a licensing deal for Funny Cide poker chips.
All well and good but better if Funny Cide continues to win.
Meantime, while Knowlton and company handle ancillary chores, trainer Barclay Tagg, as always, gets up before dawn each morning and tries to keep the horse on track.
The former Maryland-based trainer, now living in New York, was a mercurial presence in the Triple Crown last year, patient with ignorant questions, generous with his time and just as often snappish, brusk and looking pained in the limelight.
"In some ways you appreciate when you have it and appreciate it when it goes away," Tagg said earlier this week, after putting the finishing touches on Funny Cide's preparation for the Pimlico Special. "It's such an intense business, then something like [winning the Derby] comes along and distracts you. It's a big change."
If Tagg felt the pressure last year, it didn't necessarily let up after Funny Cide finished third to Empire Maker in the Belmont Stakes, dashing hopes for the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Both trainer and owners were criticized for Funny Cide finishing a well-beaten third after a two-month layoff in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and then performing abysmally in a ninth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Tagg said this week he wanted to scratch Funny Cide from both races but was no match for the inexorable momentum. The Haskell and Breeders' Cup were run in oppressive heat, which Funny Cide dislikes, but Monmouth Park had given Tagg and the owners each $50,000 and 140 complimentary tickets to the race. The owners were also firmly committed to running the Classic at Santa Anita. There was no saying "no."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
_____Black-Eyed Susan Day_____
• Where: Pimlico, Baltimore.
• What: 12-race card, highlighted by five stakes races, including $200,000 Black-Eyed Susan and $500,000 Grade I Pimlico Special.
• When: First post time is 12:45 p.m.; Black-Eyed Susan posts at 5:11; Pimlico Special posts at 5:43.
• TV: ESPN, 5.