02/07/2003 1:00AM

Funkhousers strike gold with Confucius

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Even in this slots-rich era, few horses have managed to earn close to a half-million dollars at Charles Town. In fact there may be only one - Confucius Say.

Confucius Say, who will be honored as West Virginia-bred horse of the year for the second straight season at the West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association's annual awards dinner on Feb. 23, might not be well known outside his home state. But just the mention of his name is enough to warn off rivals at Charles Town, where he has won the last two runnings of the track's richest race, the $250,000 West Virginia Breeders Classic.

A 5-year-old gelding by Eastover Court, Confucius Say races for his breeders, Ruth and Randy Funkhouser, who also hold a legendary status in the close-knit West Virginia breeding industry.

The Funkhousers' O'Sullivan Farms in Ranson had its beginnings in the 1940's, when Ruth's former husband (and Randy's father), Justin Funkhouser, bred and raced on a national scale. Justin Funkhouser consigned a number of high-priced yearlings to the Saratoga sales and campaigned major stakes winner Noble Impulse. When Justin and Ruth divorced in the 1950's, the farm became hers.

While continuing to run O'Sullivan Farms as a commercial operation, Ruth, now 87, became a major player within the local Thoroughbred industry. She helped to found the West Virginia Thoroughbred Breeders Association and West Virginia Thoroughbred Development Fund, among other involvements. Randy, one of five children, joined his mother in the farm operation in the 1970's, and has been just as much of a guiding force in West Virginia racing.

The Funkhousers have built their present-day operation around well-bred stallions, and expect to breed as many as 200 mares this season to the trio of Eastover Court (Seattle Slew-Heavenly Cause, by Grey Dawn II), Makin (Danzig-Give Thanks by Reiko), and Western Cat (Storm Cat-Mill Loft-Ire, by Mill Reef).

Eastover Court, a half-brother to outstanding Mid-Atlantic sire Two Punch, sired Confucius Say from a mating with the Feel the Power mare Mo Chun, whom the Funkhousers also bred and raced. Confucius Say is totally a product of the Funkhousers' breeding program. Feel the Power, a son of Raise a Native out of champion Davona Dale, had a successful stud career at O'Sullivan Farms until his death in the summer of 2000.

"I always believed Eastover Court would cross well with Feel the Power mares," said Randy Funkhouser. "It's that cross of Bold Ruler on Native Dancer that has often worked well." Eastover Court also has sired two stakes-placed runners from Feel the Power mares: Courting Dreams and Hoity Toity.

Confucius Say, trained by George Yetsook, is the best horse produced by O'Sullivan Farms, at least in the past several decades, said Funkhouser. Although relatively slow to mature, Confucius Say has done nothing but improve with age. His career earnings are $527,897, some of which has come from forays out of state. He has won seven stakes, and placed in seven others. Funkhouser is especially proud of Confucius Say's performance in winning last year's Red Dog Stakes at Delaware Park over Grade 1 winner Burning Roma, who returned to defeat the horse who was later to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, Volponi.

"You can never compare apples to oranges," said Funkhouser, "But I can't think of another time a horse came from Charles Town and beat those kinds of horses."

For information on the West Virginia Thoroughbred Associa-

tion's awards dinner, to be held at Charles Town Races, call (304) 728-6868.