Published in the May 10 issue of The Blood-Horse
You know that dream where you hit the home run that wins the World Series? Or the one where you earn an Olympic gold medal or hit the lottery? Jackson Knowlton and nine of his friends lived that dream May 3. One of the three horses they own won the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Take a moment and let that thought swish around in your brain. A bunch of friends, some dating back together to kindergarten, put up a few grand apiece to buy a horse or two. The horses paid for themselves, and with the modest profits, the partnership, Sackatoga Stable, bought a couple more horses. Did I mention they just won the Kentucky Derby? Racing against the top breeding operation in the world, Juddmonte; against owners who spend hundreds of thousands if not millions on horses; against owners who have already won the world's greatest races; owners on the Forbes list of the richest people in the world, owners who are Hollywood moguls; 10 middle-class guys took the sport's biggest prize back to upstate New York. David slew Goliath. What was to be Empire Maker's Derby became the Empire State's. And for a day, the Derby's theme song changed gears, transforming from "My Old Kentucky Home" into "New York, New York." Knowlton and five of his partners in Funny Cide went to high school together in Sackets Harbor, a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario an hour north of Syracuse. This is the Land of the Perpetual Precipitation. But the only moisture around them Derby Day were tears of joy. Looking for a break from his studies at Ithaca College, Knowlton began minoring in betting at Vernon Downs, a Standardbred track near Syracuse. He formed a partnership in trotters that lasted 12 years, cutting his teeth as managing partner while racing $2,500 claimers at Saratoga Raceway. Knowlton became disenchanted with harness racing, and a get-together with old friends from Sackets Harbor resulted in each throwing $5,000 into a deal to buy a Thoroughbred. They coined the name Sackatoga, combining their origins with Knowlton's new home, Saratoga Springs, and enlisted Tim Kelly to buy an unraced 3-year-old they named Sacket's Six. "We thought if we could get a nice New York-bred or two along the way, that would be great," said Knowlton, a health care consultant. "Then we joined up with Barclay Tagg four years ago and he was able to locate a couple of nice horses for us. We claimed Bail Money for $40,000. She won three races and $130,000 for us before she was claimed for $62,500. So that really helped make things easier--we were playing with the house's money when we bought Funny Cide for $75,000." Besides Knowlton, the partners in Funny Cide are Gus Williams, a retired building contractor; David Mahan, a caterer; Lew Titterton, who runs health care facilities; businessman Eric Dattner; Mark Phillips, a retired schoolteacher; Jon Constance, an optician; and Pete Phillips and Larry Reinhardt, both in the construction business. The screams of joy in the winner's circle after Funny Cide hit the wire first were not those of staid horsemen to whom success is second nature. They were cries of disbelief and exultation from a group that on a dare decided to scale Mt. Everest and then went out and made the summit. "Everybody in this group really likes each other," noted Mahan. "We're not the millionaires. I mean, Funny Cide wasn't a cheap horse, but he wasn't bought for millions either." Titterton tossed $4,000 into the kitty for Bail Money, and he's still rolling from that initial investment. "Jack's the hardest-working guy you'll find," he said. "He does all this work and doesn't get an extra penny for it. All he wanted was friends to share this with. And that's what he got. "None of us need this (horse business) to make a living, and none of us have enough of a piece to set us up for life. People have offered money for Funny Cide--the guy who brokered the War Emblem deal for Baffert tried to buy him--and we said 'no.' Look around. Doesn't this beat money? This is fun. Maybe we're the wave of the future in racing." "I think this is great for the racing business," Knowlton added. "If I was a small guy thinking about buying a horse, I'd sure think long and hard about doing it now. None of us can believe it's actually happened. It won't sink in for quite a while. It's nothing you'd ever believe a group like ours could achieve. I told the governor it wasn't too hospitable of us to bring a New York-bred gelding to Kentucky and win the biggest race in the world." Don't expect Sackatoga to change much for hitting this jackpot. They're not going to suddenly start spending hundreds of thousands on new stock. Right now, the stable, besides Funny Cide, consists of Wed in Dixie, a 3-year-old filly who has recently broken her maiden; and a Wheaton colt they recently purchased who they are renaming Lake Cide. The plan, if they decide to splurge, is to purchase an extra New York-bred or two with the cash influx from the Derby. They're not looking to turn the operation into anything more than a vehicle for fun. And they're definitely driving right. The day after the Derby, Knowlton hadn't as yet awoken from his dream. He is a gracious winner, giving all credit to Tagg and his operation; and is genuinely thrilled for what his victory means to New York racing, his partners, and his small hometown. "Yesterday was a blur," he noted, before going off souvenir shopping. "The thrill is just off the scale. I had to read the newspaper today to make sure it all happened. We're the American dream. Ten guys who bought a lottery ticket--a $75,000 lottery ticket--but guess what? We hit it. And here we are. We've won the Derby." And started an empire of their own.