Commentary: Last Laugh

Commentary: Last Laugh
Photo: Lee Thomas
Ray Paulick
Editor-in-Chief

Funny Cide was far from a household name when he won the 129th running of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) in 2003, but it didn’t take long for the New York-bred gelding by Distorted Humor   to become the toast of the racing and sporting world.

Owned by Sackatoga Stable, a group of “regular guys” from upstate New York who thought it might be fun to have a small racing stable, Funny Cide became the Everyman of our sport, keeping the dream alive that the next big horse could come from anywhere and race for anyone. His owners brought the term “Sport of Kings” to its knees with their working-class backgrounds, the big yellow school bus used to transport them to and from the track, and their uproarious fun. Their connection to the average racing fan and small-time owner and breeder was unmistakable and powerful.

Funny Cide’s run through that year’s Triple Crown gained incredible momentum. His popularity was fueled in part by the fact he was a gelding—the first since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 to win the Derby—meaning he would not be shuffled off to an early retirement in the breeding shed. Though conceived in Kentucky, Funny Cide was a New York-bred—a first for a Derby winner—making him something of an outsider and an underdog.

One week after his Derby triumph, Funny Cide and jockey Jose Santos were subjected to a national media feeding frenzy in the wake of a bizarre and unsubstantiated story in the Miami Herald suggesting Santos may have carried a foreign object in his hand that could have been used to illegally stimulate the horse during the race. An official investigation by Churchill Downs stewards completely exonerated Santos, but the attending publicity only served to heighten the public’s interest in Funny Cide and the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).

After Funny Cide romped to victory by 9 3/4 lengths at Pimlico, he returned to his New York base at Belmont Park, where trainer Barclay Tagg did his best to keep a sense of decorum and calm around the barn, something that became increasingly difficult as the local and national media jumped on the popular gelding’s bandwagon.

What happened June 7 was nothing short of phenomenal. An on-track crowd of 101,864 turned out for the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), despite a day-long downpour that dampened everything but the enthusiasm of Funny Cide’s backers. They may have been disappointed by the outcome—Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid was spoiled by Derby favorite Empire Maker—but not by the show the Sackatoga Stable runner put on.

Funny Cide was in more living rooms those early June days than any other person or animal. The race portion of the NBC telecast was the No. 1 telecast of any kind that week, including all the prime-time shows, and the network recorded the highest Nielsen rating for the Belmont Stakes since 1981.

By June 7, Funny Cide was a household name, one that did racing immeasurable good.

Under Tagg’s careful handling and managing partner Jack Knowlton’s realistic expectations, Funny Cide continued to race over the next four years with varying results. He won the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) in 2004, then endured an eight-race losing streak that had many of his fans crying “enough.” He wasn’t the same horse competitively, but Funny Cide’s connections believed that if he was a happy and sound horse he deserved to continue racing.

From all indications, Funny Cide was still happy and sound July 4 when he won the Wadsworth Memorial Handicap at Finger Lakes, much to the delight of the near-record crowd that turned out for the holiday program.

One week later, Funny Cide’s retirement was announced. If any horse deserved to go out a winner, it was Funny Cide, and he has.

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