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Funny Thing Happens

Funny Cide becomes the first New York-bred to win Derby and first gelding to win it since 1929. Frankel's horses finish second and third as he is denied again.

May 04, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky — While breeders the country over groaned, and Kentucky Derby chalk players again turned turtle, partners in small-fry stables everywhere were hoisting toasts Saturday after Funny Cide fought off his more highly regarded rivals in the stretch for a 1 3/4-length victory at Churchill Downs. In one package, the Derby had both a gelding and a New York-bred in the winner's circle, sniffing the roses.

This 129th Derby was supposed to belong to Empire Maker, who came into the 1 1/4-mile race with the gaudiest record and a sparkling pedigree, but his confident Hall of Fame trainer, Bobby Frankel, was denied once more his first Triple Crown win. Sent off at surprisingly high odds of 5-2, probably because he had a bruised foot, Empire Maker had Funny Cide in his sights through Churchill's 1,234 1/2-foot stretch but couldn't punch him out. Empire Maker barely got up at the wire for second place, a head better than stablemate Peace Rules.

Funny Cide, trained by veteran Barclay Tagg, who had his first Derby starter after more than 30 years, and ridden by Jose Santos, who after six previous tries won his first Derby on the heels of his 43-1 upset with Volponi in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, paid $27.60, hitting the finish line in 2:01 before a crowd of 148,530. Funny Cide is the first New York-bred to win the Derby and, after 74 horses tried and failed, the first gelding to click here since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.

There are 10 owners of Funny Cide, including six high school chums from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., north of Syracuse, who pooled $30,000 -- $5,000 apiece -- several years ago. Calling themselves Sackatoga Stable, an amalgam of their hometown and the historic Saratoga track in upstate New York, these investors own only three horses and pretty much operate on a pay-as-they-go basis. When they lost a horse on a claim for $62,500 last year, that gave them seed money for the private purchase of Funny Cide, an unraced 2-year-old, for $75,000.

A son of Distorted Humor and Belle's Good Cide, a family that could complete the Derby distance only if it traveled by cab, Funny Cide earned $800,200 Saturday. The Derby was his fourth win, with two seconds, in seven starts, but this was the first time he beat horses other than New York-breds. Three weeks ago, Funny Cide lost by half a length to Empire Maker in the 1 1/8-mile Wood Memorial, and Jerry Bailey, who rode the winner, thought he could have won by five lengths if he had pushed his colt. In March, Funny Cide ran third, beaten by 3 1/4 lengths, in the Louisiana Derby. The Derby was his first win in four starts this year.

Tagg, a self-described pessimist, still soldiered on after his colt was beaten in the Wood. "Friends of mine said my horse wouldn't go the distance," he said, "but I thought the extra eighth of mile in the Derby and a strong rider like Jose would help us."

Watching the race with his binoculars, Tagg lost track of Funny Cide down the backside.

"It seemed like 30 or 40 minutes that I couldn't find him," he said. "I didn't know if an ambulance had picked him up or what. Maybe they stopped to graze him."

What Tagg must have missed was Funny Cide, saving ground next to the fence, running comfortably behind Brancusi and Peace Rules as the fractions on the board showed :22 3/5 and :46 1/5. Brancusi dropped out of contention by the quarter pole, where Peace Rules took over the lead and Funny Cide moved into second place. Bailey and Empire Maker, who had a clean trip, were circling from the outside, but Bailey sensed earlier that his colt was laboring. Empire Maker was the 23rd Derby favorite to fail in the last 24 years.

"I had concern before the far turn," Bailey said. "I thought that it would be a dogfight for me to outfinish the two leaders. He worked harder than I wanted him to. The foot was no problem. This is a funny track, and sometimes horses can't handle it. It's like tennis players doing better on some surfaces than others. Maybe this just wasn't his day. He just wasn't up to running a monster race this time."

Coming out of the last turn, Funny Cide passed Peace Rules. Santos alternated hands in whipping Funny Cide to the finish.

"At the three-eighths pole, my horse felt very strong," Santos said. "He just kept digging and digging."

Santos saw the Wood differently than Bailey.

"I thought [Empire Maker] was all out that day," the jockey said. "They said they didn't squeeze the lemon, but I thought the lemon was pretty dry."

After the first three, the rest of the order of finish was Atswhatimtalknbout, Eye Of The Tiger, Buddy Gil, Outta Here, Ten Cents A Shine, Ten Most Wanted, Domestic Dispute, Scrimshaw, Offlee Wild, Supah Blitz, Indian Express, Lone Star Sky and Brancusi.

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