Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide rears up outside his barn at Belmont Monday.

Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide rears up outside his barn at Belmont Monday.

AP Photo/John Marshall Mantel

Steve Haskin's Derby Story: Cide Show

Published in the May 10 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine
Start spreadin' the news. A New York-bred has won the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). And a gelding, to boot. Rest in peace, Clyde Van Dusen.

On May 3, a new chapter was written in the annals of America's greatest horse race, scripted in Frank Capra-like fashion by a long, lean chestnut gelding with the convivial name of Funny Cide.

Owned by a group of high school buddies from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., along with several other partners racing under the name Sackatoga Stable, Funny Cide defeated the powerful Bobby Frankel-trained pair of Empire Maker and Peace Rules. Of the 17 horses entered in the 129th Kentucky Derby, Funny Cide was the only one based in New York. Not only did he become the first New York-bred to win the Run for the Roses, he also became the first victorious gelding since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.

The Derby picture had been one of frustration and confusion all winter and spring, courtesy of injuries to 2-year-old titans Vindication, Toccet, and Sky Mesa. Then the exciting Badge of Silver came along, but he was a mere flickering light that was extinguished quickly. Soon, new faces popped up out of nowhere, and racing fans were looking at previously unheard of 3-year-olds such as Buddy Gil, Ten Most Wanted, Atswhatimtalknbout, Sir Cherokee, Offlee Wild, and Brancusi, as well as Frankel's former grass star Peace Rules.

The previous year, Frankel had all but promised everyone they would be witnessing the coming of the Messiah in the form of Juddmonte Farms' magnificent Unbridled colt Empire Maker. From March 9 until April 12, Frankel virtually owned the Kentucky Derby trail. Like the giant in Jack in the Beanstalk, Frankel's footsteps shook the earth on consecutive weekends, as he crushed the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) with Peace Rules and the Florida Derby (gr. I), by almost 10 lengths, with Empire Maker. Then, on April 12, he won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) with Peace Rules and the Wood Memorial (gr. I) with Empire Maker. Finishing third in the Louisiana Derby and second in the Wood was the New York-bred gelding, Funny Cide, who battled back gamely at the end of both races.

Sure, he was a good horse, most thought, but neither New York-breds nor geldings win the Kentucky Derby. It says so right in the history books. But the horse's trainer, Barclay Tagg, had been hardened by too many Maryland campaigns to pay attention to history. What Tagg was unsure of was the horse's ability to go 11?4 miles. That uncertainty was contradicted by Funny Cide's female family, which boasted classic names like Seattle Slew, Little Current, Graustark, Sea-Bird II, and Ribot.

Prior to the Wood, the often pessimistic and realistic Tagg said, "Whether he can handle the mile and an eighth I don't know, but I can't wait to find out so I'll know whether to go on with him or end this foolishness."

Following the Wood, Tagg finally was convinced he was not playing the fool. He now was looking at the Kentucky Derby on the Funny Cide of the street.

The story of Funny Cide's remarkable journey to Churchill Downs began when trainer Tagg and his assistant trainer, Robin Smullen, first spotted the chestnut ridgling by Distorted Humor in late 2001 at Tony Everard's farm in Ocala, Fla., where Tagg's yearlings are broken. Everard had purchased the horse for $22,000 at Fasig-

Tipton's New York-bred yearling sale at Saratoga. Tagg and Smullen liked the horse, but Everard was asking $40,000, and they had no buyer at the time. The following spring they saw him again and liked him even more. Everard was asking $75,000 for the now gelded youngster, a bit too steep for the recently formed Sackatoga Stable partnership, headed by Jackson Knowlton.

On March 6, 2002, however, Sackatoga's 6-year-old mare, Bail Money, was claimed for $62,500 at Gulfstream Park. With some extra spending money to play with, Knowlton told Tagg, "If you like him that much, go ahead and buy him."

Tagg, Smullen, and Sackatoga thought they had bought a nice New York-bred gelding, when in fact they had bought a piece of history. Tagg, who once galloped the great Ruffian for Frank Whiteley Jr. at the Camden Training Center in South Carolina, had been training for over 30 years, eking out a living while toiling through many brutal Maryland winters. "There were a lot of hard years and lot of disappointments," he said.

Smullen also had struggled as a trainer, scraping and clawing her way through some hard years at Charles Town, then Delaware Park. After six years, she could no longer survive as a trainer, despite winning at a solid 17% clip. She went to work for Dr. John R.S. Fisher before hooking up with Tagg six years ago.

Tagg had tasted success in the early 1990s with grade I winners Royal Mountain Inn and Miss Josh, but hadn't had much since. Funny Cide was about to change that.

"Barclay was in New York and he told me right from the beginning this horse was very special," Smullen said. "He did things so easily, and he'd gallop by everything on the racetrack. But he became difficult to gallop. I was at Delaware at the time, and Barclay had some 90-pound freelance riders on him, and they couldn't hold one side of him. He ran off one day at Saratoga and bucked his shins. Since then, no one has been on him in the morning but me. We got him straightened out and he was ready to rock and roll."

One of those at Belmont who caught wind of Tagg's promising New York-bred gelding was Mike Sellito, agent for Jose Santos. One of the preeminent riders in the country in the mid-to-late 1980s, Santos had been struggling to get mounts, and he hired Sellito, who was looking for a rider. One morning, Sellito told Santos, "Go over and work this horse for Barclay Tagg. He's supposed to be a good one."

Tagg was surprised Santos and Sellito had known about the horse. He put him up for a half-mile work and told him to go in :49. Funny Cide was timed in :47 4/5. Santos came back and told Tagg, "Now I know him. I broke his father's maiden, and he's just like him. He has more class than any 2-year-old I've ever sat on."

Santos went to Sellito and told him, "Whatever you do, don't lose this horse. I don't care if he runs in open company or against state-breds, he's going to win first time out."

On Sept. 8, at Belmont Park, Funny Cide blew away a field of New York-bred maidens by almost 15 lengths. When he came back three weeks later and won the state-bred Bertram Bongard Stakes by nine lengths, Santos told Sellito, "This is our Derby horse."

Even though Santos had been on a number of champions and Breeders' Cup winners, it seemed an outrageous statement, proclaiming a New York-bred gelded 2-year-old as his Derby horse. In the one-mile Sleepy Hollow Stakes, Tagg experimented by having Santos take Funny Cide back and drop in behind horses. "I almost paid dearly for it," Tagg said. Funny Cide won, but by only a neck over the Allen Jerkens-trained Spite the Devil.