So, the Derby winner finally was on the grounds. "As soon as the horse walked in, we pretty much closed down the barn and made it real quiet for him," said Eppler, whose barn has housed Preakness starters Victory Gallop and Menifee, both trained by Elliott Walden.
Preakness Day was cold, wet, and downright miserable. Track superintendent John Passero did a masterful job getting the track to be listed as good by Preakness post time, and playing fair all day. Despite the weather, the on-track attendance of 100,268 was the fourth-largest Preakness crowd ever.
Funny Cide was made the 9-5 favorite, with Peace Rules next at 2-1, and the Bob and Beverly Lewis-owned entry of Scrimshaw (trained by D. Wayne Lukas) and Senor Swinger (trained by Baffert) at 9-2.
As the horses made their way from the turf course saddling area onto the main track, Knowlton prepared to lead his boisterous group of Sackatogians back upstairs. Like a wagon master, he raised his arm over his head, pointed forward, and shouted, "Let's go!"
The group, all 39 of them, once again had traveled on a now-famous school bus, which Knowlton refers to as their yellow stretch limousine.
Standing by the rail, near the finish line, was Eppler. "God, I hope he can win it," she said as the field loaded in the gate. The start was smooth, with Funny Cide breaking alertly. After a minor brush with New York Hero, he moved up into contention, right behind Peace Rules and Scrimshaw. "Come on, Barclay!" Eppler shouted. "He's in a perfect position."
Into the clubhouse turn, after a solid opening quarter in :23.37 over the heavy, drying out track, Edgar Prado gunned Peace Rules into a clear lead, as Bobby Frankel's strategy of dictating the pace fell right into place. As Peace Rules continued to increase his lead, Santos, on a loose rein, let Funny Cide cruise up to him. It was apparent that Santos, riding high in the saddle and barely moving his hands, had a ton of horse under him. After a half in :47.14, the two favorites hooked up and the race was on. They battled through a stiff quarter in :24.48, as Santos looked briefly over both shoulders. He knew he was on a dynamo, and already felt as if he were in complete command.
Nearing the top of the stretch, Funny Cide was moving so powerfully and with such momentum, he took himself a bit wider than he had to. In a flash, he was gone, opening up with every stride. Up in the boxes, Rita Santos and Jose Jr. burst into tears, knowing the race was all but over, and that Jose had erased every ugly thought and word that had infiltrated their lives.
Eppler, meanwhile, was still shouting, "Come on, Jose! Come on, Funny Cide! Oh, he's gonna win it. Look at that; isn't that cool? Isn't that great? I finally got one that actually won from my barn." She was living vicariously through her one-time fellow Maryland trainer and loving every minute of it.
By now, the noise was deafening. The bone-chilled patrons suddenly grew warmer, their blood stirred by racing's newest hero and his courageous rider, both of whom were putting on a show down the stretch unlike anything ever seen in the history of the Preakness. They charged past the wire well ahead of Midway Road, with Scrimshaw nosing out Peace Rules for third. With strong closing fractions of :24.80 and :19.19, Funny Cide completed the 1 3/16 miles in 1:55.61. The only Preakness winner to win by a larger margin was the very first, Survivor, in 1873, who was believed to have won by 10 lengths at a time when there was no photo finish camera.
The first person Tagg saw as he crossed over to the winner's circle was Eppler. The two embraced. "I'll build a new roof on the barn for you, and new siding and everything," he told her.
For Tagg, he had come a long way since watching the Preakness from the rooftop of the Pimlico barns back when he was a struggling trainer. For Sackatoga Stable, it was another day of wondrous revelry.
But no joy could surpass the feelings shared by the Santos family after the race. As Santos was being interviewed, Jose Jr. clung to his father, pride once again beaming from his face. As he stepped off to the side, he said, "I wish they'd ask me a question."
Rita stood nearby holding a bouquet of black-eyed Susans. Just six days earlier, she had heard gut-wrenching words from 7-year-old Selena, who had awakened in the middle of the night unable to sleep after watching her father on TV arriving in Louisville for his hearing. Selena said to her mother, "Mommy, I can't sleep. I didn't realize Daddy was such a bad person."
Now, here was Selena, with a bright smile on her face and white ribbon in her hair, and only one thing on her mind. "Mommy, can I smell the flowers?" she asked.
In the jocks' room lounge, Rita and the four kids waited for Jose, with Selena and Savannah playing ping-pong, and Jose Jr. riding the Equicizer horse, reliving his father's moments on Funny Cide.
"When did you know you had the race won?" he was asked. "Four furlongs out," he answered, pumping his hands and going to left- and right-handed whips. "He was flying. Then they hit the turn and he started to get busy with him. And this was classic. After he passed the wire, he goes like this (holding up his right hand and opening his fingers). Look, no battery."
When a replay of the race came on the TV, Rita sat down on the couch and also relived the race. As the field turned for home, she said, "This is where I burst into tears. I couldn't watch anymore. Right there (as the horse drew clear), I'm going, 'Oh my God, I can't believe he's doing this.' Joe (Jose) deserves it so much. We've had our ups and downs, but it just makes us stronger and more appreciative of what we have.
"I can't imagine what Belmont is going to be like. This is going to be so big for New York. They're going to be loving it. The kids go back to school on Monday. We're trying to be as normal as we can, but is there any way to be normal? We're living in a dream now."
Rita watched the final furlong of the Preakness, and as Funny Cide crossed the finish line, she suddenly came to a stark realization. She flung herself against the back of the couch and put her hands over her face. "This could really happen," she said. "It really could. This horse could win the Triple Crown."