Sunday, May 4, 2003

Funny Cide up in Derby


The Empire State upsets Empire Maker; New York-bred gelding bucks trends

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

PHOTO GALLERY

Photos of Kentucky Derby
LOUISVILLE - Saratoga, N.Y., is the mecca of racing, but no longer the capital. The rolling horse farms and billion-dollar breeding industry are Kentucky's renown now.

Yet the beauty of the world's most important horse race is that anyone can win. Saturday, it was an unheralded, 65-year-old trainer and unknown ownership group of old high school buddies that gave the Kentucky Derby a distinctive New York flavor.

A nervous-Nellie horseman named Barclay Tagg planned his training of Funny Cide just right, bringing along the unsung gelding just in time to make history as the first New York-bred winner in the race's 129-year history.

"We're so happy for Saratoga and for New York racing," said Jackson Knowlton, head of the horse's ownership group. "I told the governor (Paul Patton) when he gave us the trophy, 'It's probably not too hospitable of us to bring a New York gelding down to Kentucky and win the world's biggest race.' But for us, it's an absolute dream come true."

The horse went off at 13-1 odds, the seventh choice in the betting line. He made his move a mile into the 1 1/4-mile race, storming into the lead, and jockey Jose Santos held off the two big guns of Bobby Frankel's barn - 5-2 favorite Empire Maker and second choice Peace Rules - down the stretch.

Empire Maker finished 1 3/4 lengths behind Funny Cide, one head ahead of Peace Rules.

To further the New York story, the Kentucky Oaks on Friday had been won by a horse bred and owned by Saratoga resident Marylou Whitney and trained by New Yorker Nick Zito.

"I can't wait to see Marylou and celebrate," Tagg said.

Tagg admitted his celebrations would be low-key, saying, "I'm going to go back to the barn for a while" to check on his horses.

But Knowlton had friends who insisted on a party. He and four pals from Sacketts High School near Syracuse started a 10-member racing syndicate called Sackatoga Stable several years ago and have just three thoroughbreds in training.

"We're just the little guys in the game," Knowlton said. "Everyone can look at this horse and get hope from what we accomplished."

Sackatoga races its horses on the New York circuit, where Tagg trains. Tagg, a former steeplechase rider best known for turf horses, was in his first Derby.

Though his horse finished second to Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial three weeks ago, Tagg talked during the week about not getting his hopes up.

"This is a very difficult game," he said. "I've had a lot of highs but a lot more lows.

"You can't get too high on a horse, because anything can happen. At any point, you can find yourself at 5 o'clock in the morning feeling something strange in their leg, and then it's all over."

Tagg was starting with a diamond in the rough here. Funny Cide had been sold for just $22,000 at auction as a yearling and was a gelding; no gelding had won the Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.

Tagg saw the horse in Ocala, Fla., on three different occasions and eventually liked the way he matured well enough to buy him for Sackatoga last year for a still-bargain $75,000.

Tagg brought the horse along slowly, and it won three races last fall against inferior competition in New York.

His first prep race this year, the Grade III Holy Bull in January, was a disaster: fifth place, 6 1/2 lengths out. But Funny Cide had decent speed figures, and friends told Tagg not to abandon the Triple Crown trail.

The horse suffered lung and throat infections and didn't race again for nearly two months but looked better when running third in the Louisiana Derby. Then came the step up in the Wood.

"You don't get many opportunities like this," Tagg said. "You don't get many horses of this caliber."

Not Tagg, at least. Or Sackatoga.

Or even Santos, who had been 0-for-6 in Derbies and hadn't ridden in the race since 1999. Yet Santos had ridden all of Funny Cide's lifetime starts and had told Knowlton last fall that this would be his Derby horse.

"Jose made the comment last fall that this was the best 2-year-old he had ever seen," Tagg said. "That gave me confidence."

All that was left was to stun the crowd of 148,530 and the rest of the racing world. And strike a blow for New York.

"To win the Derby with a New York-bred, you have to know what you're doing," Knowlton said. "And Barclay sure does."

Order of finish

1. Funny Cide

2. Empire Maker

3. Peace Rules

4. Atswhatimtalknbout

5. Eye of the Tiger

6. Buddy Gil

7. Outta Here

8. Ten Cents a Shine

9. Ten Most Wanted

10. Domestic Dispute

11. Scrimshaw

12. Offlee Wild

13. Supah Blitz

14. Indian Express

15. Lone Star Sky

16. Brancusi

Facts about the 129th Kentucky Derby and winning horse Funny Cide

Winner: Funny Cide.

Birthplace: New York (first winner).

Color: Chestnut (first since Charismatic in 1999, 42nd overall).

Gelding: First since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 (eighth overall).

Sale price: $22,000 at 2001 Saratoga August Yearling Sale.

Sire: Distorted Humor (first Derby winner for sire).

Jockey: Jose Santos (first Derby win in seven tries).

Trainer: Barclay Tagg (first Derby win in initial start).

Owner: Sackatoga Stable, managed by Jackson Knowlton (first Derby win in initial start).

Prep prior to Derby: Second at Wood Memorial.

Post position: Six (seventh winner from that post).

Time: 2:01.19 (10th-fastest in history).

Fractions: :22.78, :46.23, 1:10.48, 1:35.75, 2:01.19.

Track condition: Fast track (ninth consecutive running over a fast track).

Purse: $1,100,200.

Favorite (wagering): Empire Maker (2.5-1).

Weather: 67 degrees.

Attendance: 148,530 (fifth-largest in Derby history; record is 163,628 in 1974).

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E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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