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Now They Have Last Laugh

Titterton and Knowlton, part of a group that owns Funny Cide, never intended to make money, but the $75,000 purchase has earned $1.2 million.

May 16, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

BALTIMORE — Lou Titterton and Jack Knowlton dabbled in cheap horses several years ago. The first horse Knowlton owned in a partnership was a sore-legged Standardbred who never got to the races.

"My first horses did horribly," said Titterton, chiming in about his thoroughbreds. "They all got hurt and we wound up selling them for a fraction of what they cost us."

Then, last spring, an unraced, New York-bred gelding entered the lives of Titterton and Knowlton, who along with eight other partners own Funny Cide. The horse came cheap -- $75,000 in a private sale -- but he was all thoroughbred and seems as solid as oak.

Two weeks ago, Funny Cide launched the Sackatoga Stable -- half is Sackets Harbor, N.Y., the other half Saratoga -- into national prominence, winning the Kentucky Derby over more celebrated rivals. And so the Sackatoga Ten will be assembled at Pimlico on Saturday, rooting for Funny Cide to win again in the Preakness.

A victory would position Funny Cide to sweep the Triple Crown, something that has never been done by a gelding and has not been accomplished by a colt since Affirmed 25 years ago. The Triple Crown's last race is the Belmont Stakes on June 7.

"What we thought we were buying was an upper-echelon New York-bred," said Knowlton, a health-care consultant in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who is the managing partner of Funny Cide. "All we were hoping to do was at least break even. We were never in this to make money."

The Funny Cide story is wall-to-wall serendipity. The colt was first sold at a yearling auction in 2001 by his breeders, WinStar Farm in Kentucky and Anne and Joe McMahon of upstate New York, for $22,000. His consigners estimated that a foal from the first crop of the stallion Distorted Humor would have brought twice that much.

The buyer, Tony Everard of Ocala, Fla., castrated Funny Cide, not because of unmanageable studdish tendencies but because he was a ridgeling -- a horse who had only one testicle descending.

Barclay Tagg, who had been training for the Sackatoga outfit's modest stable for three years, noticed Funny Cide at Everard's farm in November 2001. Sackatoga had hired Tagg as its trainer after Knowlton's first choice never returned his phone call.

Tagg, 65, had kicked around Maryland for more than 30 years, known more as a grass trainer who occasionally turned up a good stakes horse, before moving to New York in 2001. As recently as 1992, his barn won only 39 races and barely earned $1 million in purses. After Tagg took out a trainer's standard 10% of that total, he probably wasn't doing much more than banking a small profit after his barn expenses were factored in.

"The trainer who didn't call back shall go nameless," Tagg said. "One of these days, though, I ought to thank that guy."

Knowlton was a frequent racegoer who had noticed Tagg getting a lot of mileage out of his stock over the years.

"His grass horses, in particular, held their form," Knowlton said. "His grass horses almost never ran a bad race."

Everard's asking price for Funny Cide started at $40,000, and in two subsequent visits to see the horse, Tagg found the price creeping up. Maybe he was telegraphing to Everard that he was too interested.

Finally, the Sackatoga guys gave him the go-ahead to buy at $75,000. They were flush with extra cash, having bought Bail Money for $40,000 and earned about $130,000 with the mare on the track before losing her on a claim for $62,500.

Titterton, who, like Knowlton, also works in the health-care business in Saratoga Springs, said that it would be incorrect to suggest that Funny Cide would not have been bought if Bail Money hadn't been claimed.

"We were going to buy Funny Cide either way," Titterton said. "Barclay was very high on the horse."

The Sackatoga partnership includes five of Knowlton's former high school classmates from Sackets Harbor in the 1960s. They include a retired builder, a caterer and a retired English teacher. The six of them met at Knowlton's house for a Memorial Day weekend party in 1995. One night, they all decided to form a stable, at $5,000 each. They woke up the next day and thought that the $30,000 grubstake was still a good idea. Thus was born Sackatoga Stable.

Tagg said there has been only one disagreement over Funny Cide or any of the partners' other horses.

"They wanted to go to the Great State Challenge [at Lone Star Park in Texas], and I didn't," Tagg said. "The horse got a lung infection around that time, and that settled that."

There was unanimity about what to do with Funny Cide to prepare him for the Kentucky Derby. Knowlton and Gus Williams, another partner, had socially visited the Fair Grounds in New Orleans five consecutive years to watch the Louisiana Derby.

"The track has a long stretch, like the one Funny Cide would need to run over in the Kentucky Derby," Knowlton said, "and the Fair Grounds also has a reputation for having a running surface that's kind to horses' legs."

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