They came together on Memorial Day weekend eight years ago, six
friends sharing cold beer and picnic food on a backyard deck off
Hounsfield Street in their hometown of Sackets Harbor, N.Y., a
village of 1,368 on a spit of land at the eastern end of Lake
Ontario. They had lived solid, useful lives. None was wealthy,
none poor. One of them, a gregarious man named Jackson Knowlton,
had recently lost money at the cheap end of the harness-racing
business, and in the haze of a long, silly day suggested that
perhaps the six of them should kick in $5,000 each and take a
crack at the thoroughbred game. Just for fun.
The notion of entering a sport that bankrupts rich men was met
with skepticism. "I have a better idea," said Harold Cring,
another of the gang. "Why don't we each take $5,000, stuff it
into a tin can and bury it here in the backyard? Either way,
we're never going to see it again." Yet as the weekend wore on,
the thoroughbred scheme took root. The group called its venture
Sackatoga Stable, the first half of the name for the hamlet where
all of them were raised, the second half for Saratoga Springs,
the idyllic upstate New York racing town where Knowlton has lived
since 1984, a place where racing dreams are hatched and where
anything can seem possible on a cool summer morning. The first
horse, purchased for $22,000, was named Sackets Six.
The group gathered again last Saturday in a most improbable
place, to watch in astonishment as a three-year-old chestnut
gelding named Funny Cide won the 129th running of the Kentucky
Derby. In the long shadows of a clear spring afternoon, Funny
Cide swept jockey Jose Santos past the twin spires of Churchill
Downs and was first under the wire in the maroon and silver
Sackatoga silks, designed to honor the colors of the Sackets
Harbor Central School Patriots. Funny Cide, who went off at odds
of almost 13-1, became the first New York-bred horse and the
first gelding in 74 years to win the Derby. He also connected the
common man to the sport of kings. For one Saturday, the Derby was
A year ago, victory in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby was
purchased by a Saudi prince (the late Ahmed bin Salman) who
bought War Emblem for nearly $1 million less than three weeks
before the Derby. "Everybody buys the Derby," the prince said
after his victory, a statement that was both crass and true. On
Saturday, Funny Cide left in his wake the wealthy and privileged.
In second place was 5-2 favorite Empire Maker, owned by another
Saudi prince (Khalid Abdullah of Juddmonte Farms), dropped from
the womb of the most prized broodmare in the world (Toussaud),
trained by Bobby Frankel and ridden by Jerry Bailey, both among
the elite of their professions. In third was Frankel's Peace
Rules, bought in September by wealthy California businessman
Edmund A. Gann for $350,000; and in fourth Atswhatimtalknbout,
bought 15 months ago for $900,000 by Forbes 400 Public Storage
magnate B. Wayne Hughes and now owned in part by Steven Spielberg.
Funny Cide has 10 owners who together could not afford to buy
fuel for Hughes's private jet. They bought Funny Cide last spring
for $75,000, their ninth purchase in eight years. Four of the
original Sackets Harbor six together have one $15,000 share
(Cring, who owns a construction company; Mark Phillips, a retired
math teacher; Mark's brother Pete, a retired utility company
worker; J.P. Constance, an optician who in March finished a
four-year term as mayor of Sackets Harbor. Larry Reinhardt,
another local, also bought in). Another member, Jean Derouin (who
hosted the '95 party), was offered a piece but declined "because
my wife said, 'No more horses.'" Knowlton, who serves as managing
partner of the syndicate, has a full share.
Since Sackatoga's formation, Knowlton has added four more
partners. In Louisville, the Funny Cide entourage swelled to more
than 50, with rooms at the historic Galt House hotel. One of the
new partners, Dave Mahan, a caterer from Watertown, Conn., sought
transportation to the track, but he was told that the cost to
hire a motor coach would be $3,200. Instead, he lined up a school
bus for $1,100. They called it their big yellow stretch limo, and
when they left for the track at 10:15 on Saturday, the bus was
stocked with Bloody Marys and beer. They persuaded the driver to
put $20 on Funny Cide's nose and matched it with $20 of their
own, an investment that earned the driver some $400. The winner's
share of the Derby was $800,200. "Next time," said Mahan, no
doubt looking ahead to the May 17 Preakness, "I guess we can
afford the better bus."
They came to watch a horse who had outrun all their expectations.
The original Sackatogians had, remarkably, collected few scars
from their hobby. "Eight years and I'd say we've just about
broken even, which is all we could have asked," says Mark
Phillips. Knowlton had hired trainer Barclay Tagg in the spring
of 1999 and authorized him to look for modestly priced New
York-bred horses to buy. In November 2001 Tagg noticed a yearling
for sale at New Episode Training Center in Ocala, Fla., and after
several visits he bought the gelding for $75,000. It was a modest
price by big-time racing standards, but more than Sackatoga
usually paid. The horse's name was Funny Cide because his sire
was Distorted Humor and his dam was Belle's Good Cide (a daughter
of Slewacide, whose sire was Seattle Slew).
He started his three-year-old season with a rough, fifth-place
finish in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Florida on
Jan. 18. Seven weeks later he finished third behind Peace Rules
and Kafwain in the Louisiana Derby (he moved up to second when
Kafwain was disqualified), a race in which Funny Cide seemed
hopelessly beaten after giving up the lead but made a late charge
on the rail. In the April 12 Wood Memorial, Funny Cide was a
close second to Empire Maker, but conventional wisdom was that
the margin was deceptive because Santos was whipping Funny Cide,
while Bailey was mostly hand riding Empire Maker, the heavy
favorite. The conservative, 65-year-old Tagg, a horseman beneath
the radar for three decades, had tried to talk himself out of
taking Funny Cide to Kentucky. "Anytime it looked like the horse
wasn't [improving], I was going to get out of it," he says. But
Funny Cide kept making a case for himself. His Beyer speed figure
in the Wood was a whopping 110, and he came out of the race fresh
While Derby week hype focused on various Empire Maker storylines
(How bad was his bruised right front foot? Can he win the Triple
Crown? Will Frankel finally get a Derby?), Tagg kept Funny Cide
in New York until three days before the race. The horse ripped
through two fast workouts at Belmont, and in the second, four
days before the Derby, he went five furlongs in 59 seconds flat
and exercise rider-assistant trainer Robin Smullen could scarcely
pull him up two furlongs later. There was another sign: Tagg
suspects that as a weanling Funny Cide was ill with pneumonia, so
at times he wears an inhalator on his nose to ensure clean, moist
air. In the weeks leading to the Derby, his breathing seemed to
improve by the day.
Yet a bad trip in the Derby can crush even a fit horse; Funny
Cide's was a dream. After bumping with Offlee Wild out of the
gate, Funny Cide cruised behind Brancusi and Peace Rules down the
backstretch, took the lead on the far turn and won comfortably,
by 1 3/4 lengths. His time of 2:01.19 was the 10th fastest in
Derby history. It was a professional ride by Santos, one of the
most sought-after riders from the mid-'80s through the late '90s.
But between '97 and 2002 he had changed agents four times and
hadn't ridden in the Derby since '99.
Last spring Santos hooked up with Mike Sellitto. They were
together last October when Santos won the $5 million Breeders'
Cup Classic on long shot Volponi. In the aftermath of the Derby,
Santos's eight-year-old son, Jose Jr., sprinted across the
infield and was hoisted into the air by a family friend. "I can't
believe we won the Kentucky Derby," he screamed at his father.
It was the sentiment of the day. Half an hour later, Tagg waited
patiently in the Downs paddock for an interview to begin. Nearby,
Knowlton signed autographs, the first of his life. A hand landed
on Tagg's right shoulder, and he turned, startled, to find
himself facing four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas,
whose two horses, Ten Cents a Shine and Scrimshaw, had run eighth
and 11th, respectively.
"Good feeling, isn't it," Lukas whispered to Tagg. "Enjoy it."
Here was royalty conferring validation upon a commoner. On this
Derby day, the sport of kings was also the sport of caterers,
math teachers and small-town mayors--the sport of people with
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [T of C] OUT OF THE SHADOWS Long shot Kentucky Derby winner Funny Cide (6) is on his way to the Preakness (page 34).
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES NO LOOKING BACK Santos's slump seemed like ancient history as he urged Funny Cide to the wire.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES SLEEPER He didn't get the hype of Empire Maker (12) and Peace Rules (right), but Santos (6) knew Funny Cide was special.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES RUN FOR GLORY The 16 horses in the Derby field jockey for position as they head into the first turn at Churchill Downs.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES HAPPY DAYS Tagg hoisted the sport's top prize, while (from left) Mahan, Knowlton and Santos joined in the celebration.
Funny Cide connected the common man to the sport of kings. For
one Saturday, the Derby was Hoosiers.