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Written with Sally Jenkins, coauthor of Lance Armstrong's It's Not About the Bike, Funny Cide tells the whole story -- the parts we knew and the parts we never suspected; the shocks, twists, and bursts of sheer joy -- as it follows the group's emotional ups and downs against overwhelming odds, illness, even scandal, to capture the imaginations of millions. It is a story of loyalty, hard work, and trust; of friendship and resilience; of men and women staying true to themselves above all. It is a book for the underdog in all of us -- a new American classic. Sackatoga Stable is owned by ten people -- led by managing partner Jackson Knowlton -- whose jobs range from catering to construction to health care. Unlike Funny Cide's million-dollar brethren, who make a quick killing and then get retired to stud, their horse will race for all his fans to see as long as he is healthy and happy -- conceivably for years to come.
The Odd Stranger
What you know for certain is that you don't know nothing for certain.
-ALLEN JERKENS, Hall of Fame trainer
Any sorehead disbeliever who questions the abilities of nature would do well to spend time in a horse barn. It defies odds that something as carefully aligned and perfectly timed as a thoroughbred gets born, much less gets to the Kentucky Derby. Yet things get born all the time, intended and unintended, mostly goats and people, but also ponies and donkeys, and occasionally, through the juncture of chance, and notion, a thoroughbred horse. A champion horse.
"A million things have to go right to win a race," Barclay Tagg liked to say. "Only one thing has to go wrong to lose it."
Funny Cide was an improbable horse. The bettors didn't expect him, those backstretch habitués with their curled-up racing forms and their bad loafers, hawkeyeing for a long shot. The breeders didn't expect him, those hands-on gods of the equine universe. The owners didn't expect him, those incurable purchasers of hope. The trainers didn't expect him, either, those closet romantics stamping around in their boots.
We were gamblers, all of us, whether we admit it or not. What other sort of person would stake a dollar bill on an animal that runs on one toe at a time?
In the year 2000, there would be just 33,689 live thoroughbred foals born in North America. Of those, some would not survive infancy and the vast majority would never win a race. Only sixteen of them would run in the 2003 Kentucky Derby.
These were just the starting odds.
For this reason, some people, very rich people, tried to beat the game with their bank accounts. There were a lot of rich people in thoroughbred racing, and they were all rich in different ways. Some of them had "old money" and were named things like Ogden or Penny, and lived on thousand-acre farms that were listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Others were Arab sheiks, or Japanese entrepreneurs, or Houston oilmen, or Hollywood producers. But one thing they had in common was their willingness to spend breathtaking amounts of money on a promising thoroughbred. They traveled by Gulfstream jets and Cadillac Escalades, and they came to the annual thoroughbred sales at Keeneland or Saratoga to purchase exquisitely bred yearlings.
In the millennium spring of 2000, thoroughbred sales would total about $1 billion. Fifty-two yearlings, unraced babies that had never worn a saddle, went at auction for $1 million or more. It was the only sport in the world in which owners were willing to pay athletes seven figures before they ever competed.
As if you could beat luck with a checkbook. As if the weight of all that money could somehow flatten fortune.
If money and pedigree were such sure things, how come they so often failed? If the game was purely about bloodlines and money, the richest owner and the most expensive horse would win every time. But, see, they didn't.
"You always get the odd stranger," said Barclay Tagg's friend Tony Everard.
The odd stranger, the outcast, the overlooked: that was Funny Cide. He wasn't owned by a sultan or a scion. He was the property of ten working-class businessmen and laborers, six of them childhood friends from a tiny nook of New York called Sackets Harbor, who'd each thrown in a few thousand dollars on a dream. They didn't travel by Cadillac, but by yellow school bus. Their trainer wasn't a star but a journeyman of thirty years, and their jockey was a busted-up has-been. Everything about Funny Cide was uncommonly common: his sire was an unspectacular runner and unproven stud named Distorted Humor, who had won just eight races in his career, none of them longer than a mile. His dam, Belle's Good Cide, was an Oklahoma-bred mare who won just two of her twenty-six starts.
Even his name was un-regal. Funny Cide. It sounded like laughing yourself to death.
Funny Cide wasn't the product of money and breeding, but rather, of the vast middle class in horse racing. Had he belonged to a larger stable, or fallen into the hands of a less conscientious trainer, he might not have become what he did. But he was a fortunate horse. Later, everyone involved with him would muse on the word "if." If Joe and Anne McMahon hadn't foaled him . . . if Tony Everard hadn't seen something in the yearling . . . if Robin Smullen hadn't noticed his breathing problem . . . if the right people hadn't found him, bought him, and raced him . . .
You could say that when it came to Funny Cide, things just lined up, like the digits of a combination lock, or the spinning of a roulette wheel and a ball. You could argue long and hard about chance, and luck, and whether it takes skill to hit a long shot. But that doesn't get you anywhere in trying to figure out where Funny Cide came from, and why. What really happened was this: a group of small-time owners and trainers did the right thing by a sweet, unpromising horse.
He was a matter of dumb luck meeting up with hard work. It wouldn't be right to say you earned him-but it wouldn't be wrong, either. Maybe you let yourself in for a little luck after thirty years of labor to make a living for your family, in your boots or your necktie. After all those years of devotion, you make an educated guess and a bold wager. So did you earn it? Maybe, maybe not.
But did you deserve it? Hell, yes.
For five weeks from April to June of 2003, Funny Cide captivated the nation as he competed in the three-race classic of American thoroughbred racing, the Triple Crown. At the same time, U.S. soldiers were fighting a foreign war, terrorists were lurking, corporations downsizing, pension plans collapsing. America needed something to cheer about, and it was Funny Cide. He made the front page of the newspapers in New York, and the network morning shows. By the time he ran in the final event, the Belmont Stakes, a total of 7.4 million households would tune in to see him, making the race the top-rated TV program of any kind for that week in June. More than six million dollars would be wagered on him at off-track betting parlors. A hundred thousand people would sit in the rain for seven hours to see his stretch run. By then, it almost didn't matter whether he won or not. . . .
Sackets Harbor, New York
A workaday man named J. P. Constance stood on his front porch and blew on a horn. It wasn't a Viking blast, or a long elegant note of jazz, but a staggering, shrill, hilariously warped series of notes. If you listened hard, you could barely distinguish it as an off-key version of that tune from the racetrack-it was the "Call to the Post."
The notes echoed up and down Hounsfield Street, a small lane at the top of a hill in the village of Sackets Harbor. "Village" exactly described the shape and size of the place, because it wasn't big enough to be a town or a burg. It was just a painterly dash of color on the banks of the silver-gray disc of Lake Ontario, a body of water so seemingly horizonless it felt like God's own mirror. Scattered around a tiny crescent harbor was a collection of old Victorian shops and a grand total of 1,386 residents.
Most of the people of Sackets-that's how they referred to it, abbreviated it to just plain "Sackets"-knew each other. They'd known each other from grade school, through high school, and college, or the Army. Once they grew up, they sat next to each other on the planning board, or the school board, or the chamber of commerce board. Some of them married each other-Jack Knowlton, president of the Sackets High class of 1965, met his wife, Dorothy, at an eighth-grade dance. The natives of Sackets could count on two things: the steady wind that blew across Lake Ontario from Canada, and each other.
J. P. Constance was their former mayor. He had been elected, he liked to joke, by bribing his neighbors with fresh baked goods. "It took an awful lot of chocolate chip cookies," he said.
The closeness of the residents was in part a function of the remoteness: Sackets was nearer to the Canadian border than to a major U.S. city. A highway sign proclaimed:
CANADA 31- SYRACUSE 66
For any sign of a building taller than two stories, you had to go ten miles down the road to Watertown, New York, a company town for the U.S. military's Fort Drum, a notoriously tough posting that was the jumping-off point for the 10th Mountain Division. A soldier stationed at Drum was liable to be shipping out for Afghanistan or Iraq, and soon.
The only way to get to Sackets, other than by boat, was by a two-lane highway from Watertown that wove through farmland, most of it less than prosperous; farmhouses with cracked shingles, tin-roofed barns, and rusted silos. A roadside diner advertised, WE DON'T FOOL YA, WE FEED YA. At a Y intersection, a sign proclaimed, ENTERING HISTORIC SACKETS HARBOR.
From J. P. and Karen Constance's porch, he could see the homes of his best friends, most of them former schoolmates at Sackets High School. Directly across the street was his old friend and predecessor as mayor, Jean Derouin, and his wife, Jeannie. Next door was the home of Peter Phillips, a retired utility company worker and former head of the school board, and his wife, Bonnie. Just around the corner lived Peter's brother, Mark Phillips, a retired math teacher, with his wife, Gwen. At the far end of the block was the home of Bonnie's brother, Harold Cring, a construction company owner, and his wife, Stephanie.
J.P. himself had lived in Sackets since the third grade, and now he owned an optical shop in Watertown. He was a trim, bespectacled man of fifty-three with a neat wedge of gray-white hair, and he had the ta-dum personality of a stand-up comic. His conversation was a constant teasing patter, and his porch was often headquarters for neighborly social gatherings that amounted to block parties.
Hounsfield Street was comprised of a row of single-story, brick and siding ranch houses with good, well-tended gardens. At first glance, nothing set the street apart from any of the other narrow lanes of Sackets. But a second look left a more peculiar impression of incongruous details:
A mailbox with the silhouette of a racehorse emblazoned on it. A lamppost held up by a figurine jockey. A horse flag with a pattern of crimson and gray triangles, emblazoned with the name "Sackatoga."
J. P. Constance, lifelong resident, working man, village comic, and former mayor of Sackets Harbor, blew his horn. The noise was joined by the sound of laughter from the homes of his neighbors. Gradually, one by one, they emerged, and strolled up the street to J.P.'s porch. It was a call they all recognized.
It was the call to cocktail hour.
Belmont Park racetrack, New York
Barclay Tagg was looking for an excuse to quit, but he couldn't find one.
Tagg was tired, not just from working today, or yesterday, but from the last thirty-odd years. To look at him, his age was indeterminate; he was built like a knife blade, his body one long straight edge from his ironed polo shirt to his creased jeans, ending in sharp-toed leather boots with spurs. But there was something stiff and sore in the way he moved, and his chipped-razor of a face told the real story: that he was older than his looks suggested. In fact, he was approaching sixty-five, and a busted-up sixty-five at that. The stiffness was the result of his years as a steeplechaser when he was a young man, and his bones had the fracture lines to prove it-six cracked vertebrae. Now he had a steel rod in his back.
Every morning, Tagg arrived at Belmont's Barn Six in the dark to tend to his modest string of horses. For three decades he had risen at four-thirty A.M., hoisted himself onto and off of horses, fed them, hauled buckets, pried nails, raked hay, cleaned tack. In those thirty years, he'd taken three vacations.
Directly across a narrow asphalt road from Tagg's barn was another barn, emblazoned with the initials "DWL." The letters stood for D. Wayne Lukas, winner of thirteen Triple Crown races and the first trainer to reach $200 million in earnings, thanks to his corporatized approach to horses.
The Belmont barn was just one part of Lukas's massive and extravagant thoroughbred operation; at his peak in the 1990s, he once had as many as 250 horses in his care. Among his wealthy owners were software giants and rappers, and in one five-year stretch they had spent over $100 million on thoroughbred purchases.
On the side of the barn, a series of large painted plaques announced the names and victories of the various superstar horses that Lukas's stalls had housed. Thunder Gulch, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont. Charismatic, winner of the Derby and the Preakness. Tabasco Cat, winner of the Belmont Stakes.
Barclay had no such plaques on his barn. His Belmont operation consisted of eighteen stalls, and the stalls weren't always full, either. In a year, his owners might buy a few new horses. There had been some hard seasons when his string of horses dwindled down to two, or none. If he didn't have a barn full of contenders, it meant a threadbare winter. Barclay got to the point where he simply expected hard times, because thinking that way was a shortcut. Unlike Lukas, with his multiple strings of horses, each horse more regally bred than the last, and owners with limitless pockets, Barclay had to wait and work for the rare gem.
It wasn't a question of talent. Barclay was as good a trainer as you could find; anyone on the backstretch would tell you that. It was just that Lukas's odds of succeeding were simply better.
Barclay was respected among his peers, known as a horseman of deep knowledge and uncompromising methods who over the years had done more, with less, than just about anybody. He'd taken a lot of castoffs and turned them into nice runners, and he'd had thirty-eight stakes winners in all. But he'd never had the big horse.
The trouble was, he'd never been able to honey-talk an owner. He didn't have the stomach to persuade them to pay a million dollars for a yearling. He didn't know how to chitchat them on the phone. Or slick them over with explanations and excuses if the horse wasn't well and couldn't run.
Barclay didn't brook any interference. The first time an owner questioned him a little too closely, or suggested he should run the horse instead of rest him, Barclay's shoulders rode up around his ears and he got an edge to his voice. "If people are conscious that I'm honest and hardworking and trying to do what's best for them, and they pay their bills on time, I'm grateful to have them as owners," he'd say. "If they're going to second-guess you all the time, I don't want 'em."
For instance, he thought he'd found his big horse in 1985, a colt named Roo Art. The horse won each of his first four races. But the owners kept telling Barclay what to do-they insisted he race against tougher competition in New York, while Barclay wanted an easier race in Maryland. Finally, he opened his mouth and heard himself saying, "Look, I'm not comfortable training for you. I think you need to give this horse to Wayne Lukas. We'll all sleep better." The owners did what he suggested. Lukas won the Suburban Handicap with Roo Art.
But by the spring of 2000, after all the hardscrabble years, Barclay had finally cobbled together a decent, comfortable life. He'd raised two teenaged daughters by himself, put them through college, and now they were safely grown with lives of their own. He'd met the right girl, Robin Smullen, a superb horsewoman twenty years his junior, who'd become his partner. They worked together at the barn every day, and went home together every night.
He owned a cottage in Laurel, Maryland, and a condo in Florida, and thanks to the booming economy, swelling with high-tech and telecommunications stocks, he had a good portfolio of retirement savings. He did the math: as soon as he hit one million dollars in savings, he was done. He could retire.
Then the economic bubble burst. Enron, Adelphi, Tyson, AOL. The money evaporated. In a matter of months, Barclay Tagg's life savings were worth half what they had been. So he had to keep working.
People called Barclay a pessimist and wondered why he always looked for things to go wrong. But actually, he was just a realist. "You have a big, fat, shiny racehorse that's running beautifully," he said. "You leave the barn that night and the horse is fine. You go to the barn the next morning, and he's crippled himself in his stall."
That was how it went, whether you were talking horses, or stocks. There were just too many things that could go wrong. So instead of retiring, Barclay kept trying to find horses, and hoping nothing bad happened to them, and hoping something good might come along.
It was a game of hope, he told himself, and he'd been hoping for thirty years.
Belmont Park racetrack, New York
Jose Santos needed a mount, badly.
He was nearing forty-two years old, and it took two steel plates and a dozen steel pins to hold him together. He had four kids, one ex-wife, and, back home in Chile, seven younger brothers and sisters. He'd fired four different agents.
Santos had once been the nation's leading jockey. But in 1988, as soon as he rose to the top of the jockey list, it was as if the cables got cut, and he plummeted down again. He had suffered catastrophic injuries, a divorce, and debt. He'd been up and down so many times, he needed a seasick remedy.
By the spring of 2000, Jose was in another career stall, struggling simply to get decent mounts, and in an attempt to resuscitate his career, he fired yet another agent. He looked around for a replacement, and his attention settled on Mike Sellito, a laconic ex-New York cop who hung around the backstretch out of love for the horses. Sellito was known around the Belmont track as simply "Mike the Cop."
Sellito's first ambition was to be a police officer, but he was badly injured while tending to a roadside accident one day. A passing motorist struck him, and it tore up his knee. That made it hard to chase bad guys, so Mike decided to make a career out of the track, as a jockey's agent.
Together, Santos and Sellito made a curious and gimpy pair. Santos was a slight but muscled figure with a shock of pitch-black hair brushed back from his face, the bones of which stood out sharply. Sellito was a large, lumbering man with a stolid personality, and a way of quietly watching everything around him, even when he seemed oblivious. But they shared an understanding: they were both determined to make it, and in order to make it, they needed to find a good horse.
They showed up at the track at five A.M. and listened to word of mouth. They talked to backstretch gossips, and to exercise riders in the track kitchen. Jose was willing to gallop anything, long shots and bums. He wasn't cut out for any other kind of work. He just wanted to ride.
"It's my job, and I know how to do it," he told Sellito. "You give me a hammer, and I don't know what to do."
— from Funny Cide by The Funny Cide Team with Sally Jenkins, Copyright © 2004 Funny Cide Ventures, LLC, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
|1.||The Odd Stranger||3|
|2.||Desperados and Weanlings||24|
|3.||The Sackets Six||51|
|4.||Pinhookers and Handicappers||89|
|Part III.||A Classic Horse|
|8.||The Triple Crown||234|
Posted July 22, 2006
A very good book about a group of longshots and a great horse. This book is well written and tough to put down. Anyone who watched Funny Cide's magical Derby and Preakness and near miss in the Belmont, will love this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 5, 2006
FUNNY CIDE IS A BOOK THAT SHOWS JUST WHAT IT TAKES TO OWN AND TRAIN A THOROUGHBRED RACE HORSE. ANYONE WHO HAS ANY INTEREST IN THOROUGHBRED HORSE RACING AS WELL AS OTHERS WOULD LOVE THIS BOOK. IT SHOWS THE UPS AND DOWNS OF THE BUSINESS AND THE WORK IT TAKES TO GET A HORSE TO THE RACE TRACK. A FINE BOOK.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 19, 2005
This was a good book, although I'm not sure if Funny Cide REALLY deserved one. His story is amazing, but nothing that horse racing fans haven't heard before. Take Seattle Slew for example, he was bought for next to nothing. I follow horse racing extensively, actually, Funny Cide is the reason I am now pretty much obsessed with the sport. The story is full of typos, and slight inaccuracies that only someone who really follows the sport would notice (I'm not trying to sound arrogant). It tells the story well, but it could have been better. I expected more from the book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 27, 2005
this book was great and the story was amazing. It really gave a lot of detail about Funny Cide's trainer, jockey, owners, and his life before he was famous. An excellent book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 26, 2004
I loved this little book. It's all about hard working people, with a sense of family and values, who ban together to buy a horse. The trainer does wonders with him, and Funny Cide does the unimaginable--he wins the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Before Smarty Jones, this was the little horse everyone fell in love with, and he should still have a place in our hearts. --Gail DowWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 19, 2004
Everyone loves a winner, especially when the winner is an underdog. That was certainly the case with Funny Cide, the never-heard-of gelding who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness thus almost copping the fabled Triple Crown. Yep, America loved him. The resonant voice of Dan Cushman chronicles Funny Cide's amazing story from starting gate to finish. Of course, it's not just a horse's story but also the tale of friends, including a trainer and a jockey who were determined to win a race. No one in this All-American story is a blue blood, not the racehorse or the men behind Funny Cide. They were blue collar workers from Sackets Harbor, New York (little more than a village with 1,386 residents) who pooled their resources to fund a small stable. They had a dream and, by golly, they were going after it. All who loved 'Seabiscuit' will root for Funny Cide and the men who believed they'd found a winner. - Gail CookeWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 12, 2004
This is the story of the owners, the trainer, jockey and exersice rider of Funny Cide. Everyone knows that he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness last year. This is the story of how he did it. Funny and touching, this is a book that Funny Cide fans will take to very quickly. Hard-nosed race fans will not, just as they did not take to the horse. Funny gets a lot of guff, and the book will, too. Still, don't pass this one up if you are a racing fan - it's a spirited look at the chestnut gelding(along with the film 'Seabiscuit') who helped bring racing back.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 27, 2009
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Posted August 8, 2010
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