04/05/2013 5:42AM

Catching up with Funny Cide: Still a fan favorite in retirement

Barbara D. Livingston
Dual classic winner Funny Cide in 2008 carries trainer Barclay Tagg.

The story of Funny Cide almost reads like a Hollywood screenplay.

A modestly priced New York-bred before it was cool to be a New York-bred, Funny Cide was bought by Sackatoga Stables, a group of likable high-school chums who traveled to races like a varsity football team going to regionals, and together, they went on a journey that took them to the doorstep of Triple Crown immortality.

In a sport where cash is king, their blue-collar story captured the nation’s imagination when Funny Cide won the 2003 Kentucky Derby and became the first gelding to win the classic race since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929, then followed it up with a 9 3/4-length win in the Preakness Stakes. This year marks the 10th anniversary of his dual classic-winning season.

Lacking the equipment to be shuffled off to the breeding shed after his Triple Crown bid was denied in the Belmont Stakes, Funny Cide, the first great runner by his sire, Distorted Humor, continued racing after his Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old season until age 7 and won 11 of 38 races for $3,529,412.

After his retirement from racing, Funny Cide spent a year as a stable pony for his trainer, Barclay Tagg, but six seasons of racing had taken a toll on the gelding’s body, and he was retired once again, this time to the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, where he took up residence in December 2008.

Now 13, Funny Cide resides in the park’s Hall of Champions with fellow Thoroughbreds Cigar, Da Hoss, and Go For Gin, once home to such residents as John Henry, Alysheba, Bold Forbes, Forego, and Kona Gold.

Since his arrival, Funny Cide has been a featured attraction during the Hall of Champions’s three daily showcases, where the horses are brought out to a nearby pavilion to be admired.

“Funny Cide and Cigar are the guys that are always in the show because if you didn’t have them available every time, someone would be disappointed,” said Wes Lanter, equine operations manager at the Kentucky Horse Park. “We’ll usually lead off with one of our Standardbreds because they’re easy to be around, and Funny Cide is usually second. Da Hoss is usually in the third spot because he’s fairly easy to work with, and then we’ll finish up with Cigar.”

The day begins around 7 a.m. for the residents of the Hall of Champions, as the staff feeds the horses and cleans their stalls before focusing on getting the horses presentable for the first show at 10:15 a.m. They show again at 1:15 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. from March to November.

In the time between shows, though, Lanter said Funny Cide often prefers to keep to himself.

“He’s kind of funny,” Lanter said. “I think he almost enjoys being in his stall more than he enjoys being out. A lot of times when I come in in the morning, he’s just standing at his stall door looking out, whereas the others might be outside grazing.”

Leading up to the 1:15 show on a late March afternoon that would have been unseasonably cold for late February, a group of revelers made their way through the barn toward the pavilion, taking time to stop at Funny Cide’s stall as he munched on a mouthful of hay. Many of the onlookers in strollers or holding their parents’ hands were years away from prenatal when Funny Cide was making his historic run down the Churchill Downs stretch, but they appreciated the pretty horse all the same.

As legendary Standardbred Won The West warmed up the crowd in the pavilion, Funny Cide’s handlers pulled him out of his stall and began the last-minute preparations – brushing the gelding’s still-woolly chestnut coat, pulling his mane and tail, and cleaning his hooves. All the while, the dual classic winner stood grumpily but obedient, with his ears never so much as flickering forward from their firmly pinned-back position.

“He’s not the most lovey-dovey kind of horse,” Lanter said. “You can go in with Da Hoss and kind of goof around with him a little. With Funny Cide, you go in and take care of his needs and make sure he’s taken care of, and then you just let him have his own time. That’s just his personality. He is who he is, and we live within those boundaries, and we all work together.”

Funny Cide’s demeanor remained indifferent as the booming cadence of Tom Durkin’s stretch call from the 2004 Jockey Club Gold Cup beckoned him into the ring.

Like any good showman, though, Funny Cide perked up when he saw the crowd of about 45 bundled-up visitors who came to see him. Now attentive, Funny Cide was led from point to point in the pavilion as fans observed the champion through their cell-phone cameras. While not as camera-savvy as his neighbor, Cigar, Funny Cide gave each group time to focus their cameras and gazes in a workmanlike fashion before moving on to the next set of bleachers.

“He’s very gentlemanly,” said Robin Bush, the Hall of Champions’s main groom and announcer, who has watched Funny Cide be led through the pavilion hundreds of times. “Sometimes he’ll take a sudden bite at the chain or at the handler, but he never seems to do anything real serious in that respect.

“Occasionally, when he gets excited, like when there’s a big crowd with a big round of applause, he can decide to have a good time and rush out of here. Sometimes, when that happens, he’ll swing way over to the right and almost hit the wall, so we keep people out of that corner more than anything because we don’t know if Funny Cide’s going to come out straight or if he’s going to start cantering and swing over to the right. He usually does fine, but we just can’t predict him. That’s just part of his character.”

Once the pictures were taken and his résumé was read, Funny Cide was led back to his stall to rest for a few hours before the process started again. After the last show of the day, he is let out into his two-acre paddock for the night, weather permitting.

Hundreds of visitors to the Kentucky Horse Park see Funny Cide every day, but the ones who were there before he became a household name still come around from time to time to show they haven’t forgotten about their champion.

“Mr. Tagg I’ve seen here a couple times,” Lanter said. “Jack Knowlton [managing partner of owner Sackatoga Stables] always comes during Keeneland and just before the Derby, and intermittently, you’ll have different members of Sackatoga pop in. They’re all New Yorkers, so it’s usually during sale time, when you can expect to see them.”

Ten years after Funny Cide’s classic victories put him on the map, Lanter said the gelding’s biggest fans haven’t forgotten about him either.

“We have a lady from Virginia who comes here a couple times a year who is a big fan of Funny Cide,” Lanter said. “She loves him. I work a lot of the Thanksgivings so I can have Christmas off, and she’ll come out here on Thanksgiving Day and spend most of the day, knowing that not a lot of people are going to be out here – that she can have some time where it’s just her and him through the stall door. She’s a real big fan and supports the park [through donations] because of Funny Cide.”