Fairy tale unfolds
Funny Cide frenzy peaking as Belmont Stakes draws closerPosted: Thursday June 05, 2003 6:41 PM
NEW YORK (AP) -- East Cide, West Cide, and on the World Wide Web, a fairy tale named Funny Cide is unfolding in thoroughbred racing.
The next chapter in this extraordinary saga will be written Saturday, when Funny Cide attempts to win the Belmont Stakes and become the first Triple Crown champion in a quarter-century.
"It's something you always dream about but you never think it can come true," says Jose Santos, Funny Cide's jockey.
Welcome to Funny Cide frenzy, now in full swing and about to reach fever pitch at 6:38 p.m. EDT -- post time for the 11/2-mile Belmont, the final and most grueling leg of the Triple Crown races.
"The anticipation is building," says Jack Knowlton, general partner of Sackatoga Stable, a group that includes six high school pals from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., who shelled out $75,000 to buy Funny Cide. "It was almost unbearable before the Preakness. I can't imagine what it'll be like before the Belmont."
And word is out: Funny Cide is a superstar, owned by a bunch of "regular guys," trained by journeyman Barclay Tagg and ridden by New York regular Santos, wrongly linked to carrying something illegal when he won the Kentucky Derby.
"The whole story is why America loves him," Tagg's assistant Robin Smullen said this week. "The story about paying $75,000 for him, him sort of being the underdog, and it's the ninth horse these people have ever owned. It's all that more than it is actually Funny Cide.
"But, of course, it's because of Funny Cide."
At Belmont Park, there's a sign at the front gate welcoming race fans to Funny Cide's home track, grooms and hotwalkers are walking around the backstretch wearing "We Love Funny Cide" buttons, and artist LeRoy Neiman showed up one morning to begin work on a Funny Cide portrait.
Even trainer Bobby Frankel, who will send out Empire Maker to try and spoil the party, is paying attention.
"You got a New York bred, and you got a gelding," Frankel said. "And you got guys [owners] I read about the other day that I was interested in. Racing needs things like this. Even the Santos thing, bad or good, gets people thinking about racing."
Win or lose Saturday, Funny Cide has already made history. He's the first New York-bred to win the Derby and the first gelding to challenge for the Triple Crown, won by such great colts as Whirlaway, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
Promotions people are trying to take advantage.
Santos threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium on May 27 -- 10 days after winning the Preakness. Triple Crown sponsor Visa will pay Funny Cide's owners a $5 million bonus if the horse wins the Belmont. The owners have set up funnycide.com and created Funny Cide Ventures.
Want Funny Cide buttons, hats, T-shirts, bobbleheads? Check the Web site. Want Funny Cide beer? Check out Saratoga Springs, N.Y., home to several of the gelding's owners and you'll find that one is being developed.
Want to visit Sackets Harbor near Lake Ontario, pop. 1,358? Look for the sign that says: Historic Sackets Harbor. Funny Cide Rules. On to Belmont.
Letters are arriving, too. Hundreds, in fact, Tagg said. Among the latest was one from Penn State, where Tagg earned a degree in animal husbandry.
"Joe Paterno wrote a letter, and he's somebody I hold in the highest esteem although I never met the man," Tagg, 65, said of the Penn State football coach.
Saratoga has long been known as racing's Mecca, but the unofficial headquarters of Funny Cide mania has gone bonkers for the horse born in town at Joe and Anne McMahon's farm.
When he won the Derby, hundreds of fans jammed into the harness track to watch. "You could feel the vibrations throughout the whole building," bartender Ray Topjian said. For the Belmont, "I guarantee the place will be packed."
The McMahon's farm has become a landmark. Passing motorists toot their horns. Some stop to chat. "Everybody wants to be a part of him," Joe McMahon said.
NBC, which will televise the race, along with the New York Racing Association and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association have stepped up promotional efforts.
Knowlton has made countless TV appearances, including one on the BBC. NYRA officials have added 1,500 extra seats at Belmont and are predicting a record crowd that could approach 120,000. Reserved tickets were selling for $700 a pair over the internet.
"We have a horse that's captured the imagination of the public and not just in New York -- in the entire country," says Bill Nader, senior vice president for NYRA. "He's sitting on the doorstep of immortality. It doesn't get any better than this."
The beauty of Funny Cide is more then just his ability to run. Because of the people surrounding him, he's truly become a horse of the people.
• Knowlton and his nine other partners are a group of fun-loving fellows -- six are high school buddies who eight years ago chipped in $5,000 apiece and formed Sackatoga Stable. One partner, Gus Williams of Saratoga Springs, wears wild-colored sports coats and carries a business card that lists himself as "Professional Italian." No princes or sheiks in this group.
• Tagg has toiled 32 years as a moderately successful trainer before he found Funny Cide on a farm in Florida. He's no Bob Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas.
• Smullen is the exercise rider and assistant trainer, and has been Tagg's girlfriend since their first date in 1997.
• Santos' career has been reborn after years of problems with drugs and injuries. He also became the sympathetic figure in this tale after questions were raised about a photograph and whether the rider may have carried something other than a whip in his hand while winning the Derby. He was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Put the pieces together, and it's easy to see why so many fans
will be rooting for Funny Cide to win the Triple Crown.