08/10/2007 12:00AM

Fond farewell for two working-class heroes


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Since we get to welcome a new Kentucky Derby winner only once a year, it felt strange to say goodbye to two of them in just three days last week. Gato del Sol, the 1982 Derby winner, died Tuesday in Kentucky at the age of 28, while Funny Cide, hero of the 2003 edition, was feted with a farewell party at Saratoga on Friday marking his official retirement from racing.

Their Derby Days came 21 years apart and they were very different horses in appearance, style, and demeanor. Gato del Sol, a laid-back gray based in California, was slow and steady and made his living passing horses late. Funny Cide, a feisty New York-bred chestnut, was a pace-presser who could have used some of Gato's mellowness. Yet despite those differences they will remain linked in memory, as the two modern Derby winners who stayed around the racetrack the longest. Gato del Sol raced into his 6-year-old year in 1985, winning the Caballero Handicap. Funny Cide lasted even longer, winning the Wadsworth Handicap at Finger Lakes as a 7-year-old last month in his final start.

The longevity was due to a combination of durability, soundness, and uselessness to the commercial breeding market that normally wags the dog of racing. Funny Cide is a gelding and Gato del Sol might as well have been.

Gato del Sol was the Giacomo of his era, a likeable colt who benefited from a pace meltdown in a chaotic Derby and never won another top-class race (though he ran third at 5 in both the Arlington Million and Santa Anita Handicap). Retired in 1986 to his birthplace, Arthur Hancock's Stone Farm in Lexington, Ky., Gato del Sol might as well have been a scarecrow as a stallion. Breeders in search of speed and precocity found him about as appealing a stud prospect as a Clydesdale. After standing him for a few disappointing years, Hancock sent him to Germany, where soundness and stamina are more highly prized at stud, but Gato fared little better.

Hancock and his wife, Staci, grew concerned that Gato might eventually meet the same fate as Exceller, the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup winner whose life ended in a Swedish slaughterhouse after he outlived his usefulness in Europe. They spent $18,000 - $5,500 to buy him and another $12,500 to fly him back home - and enjoyed watching him live out his days in a paddock at Stone Farm, where he died Tuesday.

Funny Cide was a more accomplished racehorse, winning not only the Derby but also the Preakness, the 2003 Eclipse as champion 3-year-old, and the 2004 Jockey Club Gold Cup. After that, however, he simply lost a few steps and won only 3 of his final 18 starts. A few misguided critics found it undignified that he continued to race, but the gelding seemed to enjoy it and fans loved being able to see a Kentucky Derby winner on a Friday afternoon, or at Woodbine or Finger Lakes, the sites of his final two victories. As the first New York-bred to win the Derby and the property of a modest partnership of upstate friends, Funny Cide was especially popular in the Saratoga area, and Friday's sendoff was a joyous and raucous one. Not that he's going anywhere at the moment: He's got a new job as trainer Barclay Tagg's stable pony.

Both Gato del Sol and Funny Cide were flawed heroes, contradictions to the notion that every Derby winner is by definition a great racehorse, but that is what ultimately made them more interesting and likeable than so many Derby winners who are whisked off to stud after barely a year of racing. Even when the results were mediocre, it was more gratifying to learn over time what kind of horses they really were than merely to wonder what they might have been had they been given a chance. Both ended up delighting more fans on more occasions than most of their contemporaries, and both served worthier causes than generating fat stud fees: Gato del Sol's repatriation from Germany prompted greater diligence on behalf of American horses facing uncertain futures overseas, and Funny Cide's Saratoga party was the first of what may be many fundraising appearances on behalf of equine-welfare and retirement groups.

Personally, I initially cursed them when they won their Derbies, having run second to them both with picks of Laser Light in 1982 and Empire Maker 21 years later. As the years went on, others may have soured on them, but to me they grew more admirable. They weren't immortals, but it's somehow nice to know that their names will forever be painted in gold leaf on the walls of Churchill Downs, as solid a pair of racetrack citizens as ever won the Kentucky Derby.