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Updated on 09/17/2011 10:39AM
Born in New York, reared in Florida, and now perhaps bound for glory
LEXINGTON, Ky. - Almost everyone associated with Funny Cide during his early training knew he could become a useful horse. Most saw a glimpse of toughness. But no one guessed that the plain, immature chestnut gelding would have a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner.
From weanling to 2-year-old, Funny Cide spent most of his time in Kentucky to be prepared for the summer yearling sales, and then in Florida, where he learned to carry a rider and break from the gate. He was conceived at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky., but was foaled in New York at McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds as part of a business arrangement.
Funny Cide arrived at WinStar in October of 2000, a weanling colt who bore the stamp of his sire, WinStar stallion Distorted Humor. At the time, he was known only as Belle's Good Cide '00, for his dam and his year of birth.
"He was a good, solid, typical Distorted Humor weanling," said Doug Cauthen, president of WinStar. "He had plenty of scope. He was a little long in his pastern, but he was what I'd call a good meat-and-potatoes horse. I thought he'd probably make a $40,000 to $50,000 yearling."
Dale Benson had been WinStar's yearling manager for only a few weeks in late May 2001 when Funny Cide was brought in from the farm's large colt pastures to be prepped for Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga preferred sale. In working closely with the colt, Benson and his barn crew realized Funny Cide had a tough streak.
"He was always aggressive," Benson said. "He always had a will of his own and was kind of single-minded. But he wasn't really well-muscled yet, and he wasn't dangerous."
Like his peers, the chestnut went through several weeks of hand-walking for about 30 minutes a day. Regular bathing and grooming burnished his coat. The only hitch in Funny Cide's development, Benson recalled, was temporary back soreness on his left side, followed by a brief bout with a skin fungus.
By the time WinStar shipped Funny Cide to Fasig-Tipton's Saratoga New York-bred sale in August, he was a presentable auction yearling, but not a standout.
"Not one of us would have picked him out and said, 'This is the one that will win the Derby,' " Benson said. "The first thing I thought after the Derby was, 'What did I miss?' I went back and looked at his yearling photo, thinking maybe I just don't know how to pick out a horse. But we all looked at him back then, and none of us remembered him as a great one. I looked at that yearling picture again, and he still just looked like a rangy yearling to me."
Funny Cide looked like a rangy yearling to pinhooker Tony Everard, too, when he first spotted him at the Saratoga auction. But he looked like he could turn a profit for Everard, who makes his living breaking, training, and reselling young horses at his New Episode Training Center near Ocala, Fla.
"He was immature, but I loved the pedigree, and I liked his size," Everard said. "He was my type of horse. He was going to be a 2-year-old runner."
Everard's veterinarian approved him but reminded his client that the colt was a ridgling, with one testicle undescended. Everard didn't balk. He routinely gelds ridglings, a procedure that gets rid of any discomfort a horse might feel from the entrapped testicle and that costs only $300 to $400. So Everard bought Funny Cide for $22,000.
"We turned him out with about 10 other colts, and they played and ran and fought," Everard said. "We gelded him before we broke him."
Funny Cide started his lessons at New Episode in late summer of 2001, and the plain chestnut began to impress Everard and his wife, Elizabeth, who oversaw his training.
"He had a fabulous personality, he started muscling out, and he was dying to do whatever you asked of him," Everard said. "He was one you'd get up in the morning to go watch."
His aggressive streak became pronounced once Funny Cide got a saddle on his back and started learning to stand in the gate, gallop, then breeze, in preparation for the 2002 Florida juvenile sales.
"We got to where we wouldn't train him with other horses, because he'd go too fast," Everard recalled.
But there were still no thoughts of the Triple Crown.
"All I thought about was making a profit so I could pay my bills," Everard said. "I offered him to one gentleman, but he didn't want to spend as much as we were asking.
"The day we first breezed Funny Cide out of the gate in December, that's when we knew we'd make a nice profit with him. It's a lot of drama on a young horse when you put them in the gate and finally ring that bell, with the riders yahooing like Indians. He went through all of it and absolutely loved it."
Funny Cide got sore shins, a typical 2-year-old problem, and Everard scratched him from the Ocala Breeders' Sales Company's March juvenile sale.
Trainer Barclay Tagg and his assistant, Robin Smullen, were making regular trips to Everard's training center, and they saw Funny Cide several times. Like Everard, they saw progress.
"Every month he got bigger," said Everard. So did the price tag, which started at $40,000 in February and climbed to $75,000 by March.
When Tagg's clients, Sackatoga Stable, lost a horse through the claim box for $62,500, they sent him back to buy Funny Cide for $75,000.
Tagg was pleased. "He looked like a horse you could go on with," he said.
Smullen, who is also Funny Cide's exercise rider, initially had doubts.
"I had a lot of question marks, because early on he had so much that was wrong," she said, noting that his early training was complicated by a broken tooth and a respiratory infection.
Smullen first galloped Funny Cide at Saratoga in the summer of 2002. He already had a reputation for being strong and difficult to gallop. Smullen had no trouble the first couple of times she rode him.
"But then one morning I got behind a horse galloping, and I thought it might be good for him to get a little dirt in his face," Smullen said. "Man, oh, man, he wanted to take off and run as soon as he felt that dirt. I thought there was no way we'd be able to rate him, because he got so aggressive when he was behind horses."
Smullen worked with Funny Cide all winter, getting him to relax early in his work and finish strongly. To keep him from getting too strong, she often would gallop him alone or canter the wrong way around the track, along the outside rail and away from the hustle of other horses. Previous exercise riders could hold Funny Cide only by turning his head sharply to the left while they galloped him, and Smullen still finds it helpful sometimes to angle his nose in.
"He's compliant and knows what he can and can't do, but you can't win an outright fight with him," Smullen said. "You have to convince him into doing things. The whole ride is a negotiation."
Smullen and Tagg tried new bits and nosebands to keep their aggressive gelding in control.
"But the more equipment you put on him, the worse he gets," Smullen said. "Anything that restricts him, he doesn't like it, and he'll fight it."
But he was talented. His first two races suggested that: He won them by a combined 23 3/4 lengths. So did his long, fluid stride, which Smullen describes as deceptive because it feels far slower than it is.
And he was peculiarly smart. When Smullen accompanied Funny Cide to Louisiana, where he finished third in the Louisiana Derby in March, trainer Billy Badgett pointed out that the gelding had an unusual habit. "He told me, 'This is the funniest horse I've ever seen. He couldn't care less about the gallopers, but if a horse is breezing, he watches it all the way around the turn and down the lane, until the next breezer comes by,' " Smullen recalled. "I'd never noticed it before, but he does."
The Louisiana Derby was one of only three defeats for Funny Cide. He finished fifth behind Offlee Wild in the Holy Bull and a gritty second to Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial.
"When he was younger, after his first two races, I thought, 'When he gets beaten, it's going to break his heart,' " Smullen said. "But it didn't. It made him that much more aggressive."
Remembering his own work with the yearling Funny Cide, WinStar's Dale Benson isn't surprised to hear that. But he is still astonished that the backward ridgling out of Belle's Good Cide became such a swan, and his amazement prompts him to say something that almost everyone associated with Funny Cide might say.
"It's been said more than once around here: 'Can you believe it?' " Benson said. "It just goes to show that there's part of a horse you can't measure until you line him up against other horses. It's grit, it's something that tells them, 'I don't want to get beat.' I'm thankful to be part of all this in some measure."