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."
"My relationship with the owners has always been super," Tagg said. "They're just the greatest bunch of guys. It just put pressure on me, with tons and tons of enthusiasm for the horse, and I couldn't scratch him. That's what made me so sick."
Funny Cide came back this year, winning a high-level optional claiming race at Gulfstream Park in January, looking bigger and stronger. Yet subsequent third-place finishes to two of the top horses in the country -- Medaglia d'Oro and Peace Rules -- reopened the door for criticism. The superstar, so beloved the prior year, began to take his lumps.
Before the Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap on April 3 at Aqueduct, Daily Racing Form handicapper Dave Litfin wrote: " . . . the problem is that Funny Cide isn't as fast as he once was, either. The overachieving gelding got out-of-his-mind good for about six weeks last spring when he beat Peace Rules in the Derby and Preakness, but he has been no match for that rival ever since."
Funny Cide won the Excelsior yet took heat again, as critics wrote he had benefited from a speed bias on the track. Tagg bristles at all this.
"He ran third in several million-dollar races. He has been off the board twice in all  starts. I don't call that a flash in the pan," he said. "He still seems to be extremely popular. I'm just trying to win big races with him."
With the Pimlico Special looming, Funny Cide was back in the news this week for a different reason. Santos, the horse's regular jockey, and the Sackatoga partners filed a $48 million federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Louisville accusing the Miami Herald of libel, charging the newspaper published articles and photographs after last year's Derby that accused the rider of carrying an illegal device in his right hand during the race.
Santos was subsequently exonerated but felt the articles seriously damaged his reputation.
"I have beautiful memories and one week of stress, I can put it that way," Santos said. "I know I had nothing in my hands, and I had to prove it to everyone. That accusation can ruin anybody's career.
"At the Breeders' Cup, I was in a taxi with [legendary jockey] Pat Day and the driver said, 'Are you Pat Day? I admire you so much.' Then he said, 'Who are you?' I said, 'Jose Santos.' He said, 'You're the guy who carried the battery in the Kentucky Derby.' "
Funny Cide faces an extremely tough task in the Pimlico Special -- meeting top-shelf opponents such as Southern Image, Dynever, Evening Attire and Midway Road -- but a victory could put him on track for a horse of the year type campaign. Santos, clearly, likes the idea of vindication.
"Right now, he's one of the best five horses in the country," the jockey said. "He showed last year he was the best 3-year-old. People sometimes have nothing good to talk about. You always find people who would knock him. I saw him three days ago, and he worked a half-mile, and he looked very, very good."