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Sackatoga Party Keeps Getting Bigger

Funny Cide's small-town owners have become big-city media darlings as Triple Crown buzz grows louder.

June 06, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

SACKETS HARBOR, N.Y — SACKETS HARBOR, N.Y. -- A few days before Saturday's Belmont Stakes, all but one of the Sackets Harbor Six, otherwise known as the minority owners of Funny Cide, gathered at the home of J.P. Constance, otherwise known as the former mayor (two terms) of this sleepy village on the shores of Lake Ontario, about 25 miles from the Canadian border.

Answering a question, Constance kiddingly explained how he'd managed to get elected to Sackets Harbor's highest -- but nonpaying -- post twice.

"I think I got about 80 votes both times," he said. "You can't imagine how many cookies we had to bake to get those votes."

For Constance and his cronies, these are the best of times.

"Ain't the beer cold!", an expression that might have originated with the 1966 Baltimore Orioles, fits these guys, who this June night are hoisting chilled glasses as they greet wave after wave of reporters, 99% of them finding Sackets Harbor for the first time. The hamlet is more than 300 miles from Belmont Park on Long Island, where Funny Cide has all but finished his preparations for Saturday's race and his pursuit of a Triple Crown sweep. From New York City, the fastest way to Sackets Harbor is to fly to Syracuse, then drive the last 80 miles.

Eight years ago, during a Memorial Day reunion of these former Sackets Harbor classmates, Jack Knowlton and the five others put together $30,000 in equal shares to form Sackatoga Stable, which is named after this town and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Knowlton relocated to go into the health-care consulting business. Sackatoga has enjoyed modest success over the years, plowing an occasional profit back into the game, and now the 10-member stable -- nine New Yorkers and a caterer from Watertown, Conn. -- is one victory away from an epic Kentucky Derby-Preakness-Belmont sweep that would skyrocket Funny Cide's earnings to almost $7.5 million. The 3-year-old gelding, purchased by trainer Barclay Tagg for Sackatoga last year for $75,000 -- before he had ever run a race -- has already put $1.8 million in the bank.

"All the Hollywood scriptwriters in Beverly Hills couldn't write the Funny Cide story," said trainer Wayne Lukas, who's running longshot Scrimshaw in the Belmont.

The purse is $1 million, with $600,000 to the winner and Funny Cide eligible to earn an extra $5 million if he sweeps.

Knowlton, whose mother taught most of his Sackets Harbor partners in the sixth grade more than 50 years ago, was the only member of the local group with any racing know-how. Weary of losing money while part of a harness-horse syndicate, Knowlton sold the five others on the thoroughbred investment. With a 20% interest in Funny Cide, Knowlton is the managing partner of the stable and works closest with Tagg. The five Sackets Harbor residents own 4% apiece. Like Knowlton, there are three other 20% partners.

All of them know how lucky they are. Sackatoga had to lose a horse for $62,500 in a claiming race in order for the group to have the wherewithal to afford Funny Cide. Another of Tagg's clients -- who said, "I don't buy New York-breds" -- had to turn down Funny Cide before the trainer moved on to Knowlton & Co.

The horse has thrust tiny Sackets Harbor into the national limelight. Underneath the "Historic Sackets Harbor" sign at the entrance to the town has been added:



The Sackets Harbor Six are to be interviewed by Katie Couric today on NBC. Tonight, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, has invited the Funny Cide crew to Gracie Mansion.

"It's the biggest thing to happen to Sackets Harbor since the War of 1812," Knowlton said after the Derby. The burg had a population of 1,315 in 1990 and grew, so to speak, to 1,386 by 2000.

Knowlton said there were a few Sackets Harbor residents who playfully took exception to his remark.

"But then, they couldn't come up with anything that was bigger than Funny Cide," he said.

In the War of 1812, between the British and the U.S., British-Canadian military units tried to destroy an American shipyard here in May of 1813. Although most of the American forces were on the other side of Lake Ontario, marching on Fort George, the remaining troops withstood the attack on Sackets Harbor. A treaty ended the war in December of 1814.

Unlike the bluebloods who frequently win the Belmont, most of Funny Cide's owners were or are working stiffs. Constance, an optician, owns an old bugle and sometimes goes to his front porch and blows a riff that signals the cocktail hour is about to begin. Harold Cring, who owns a construction company; Mark Phillips, a retired math teacher, and his brother Peter Phillips, a retired utility company employee, live nearby. Larry Reinhardt, a construction project manager, lives in Watertown, eight miles away.

Although Funny Cide is the ninth horse Sackatoga has run -- the syndicate has two other horses in Tagg's barn at Belmont Park -- Mark Phillips points out that not all of the Sackets Harbor partners were involved with every horse.

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