Updated on 09/17/2011 10:26AM

New Yorker thwarts royalty


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - From the outset, the Kentucky Derby has been great theater. H.P. McGrath's Chesapeake was considered the one to beat in that first Derby on May 17, 1875, but broke poorly and never gained position. Fortunately for McGrath and the backers of his stable, McGrath had a pacemaker in the race. Aristides broke alertly, went to the front, and remained there most of the way to win by two lengths. The Little Red Horse was the toast of the turf.

Several years ago, Jackson Knowlton and four friends from his home town of Sacketts Harbor, N.Y., met and decided it might be fun to own a horse in partnership. The group, now numbering 10, purchased a New York-bred son of Distorted Humor privately for $75,000, gelded him, and sat back to enjoy their little fling.

Funny Cide, the standard-bearer of the Sackatoga Stable, showed ability from the start, winning his debut at Belmont Park last fall by almost 15 lengths. He also won his next two appearances, small stakes restricted to New York-breds, but was not as successful when he bid for the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park, his first effort at 3.

A throat condition, which had been bothering him for some time, was met and conquered by Dr. Stephen Selway. Funny Cide underlined his relief with good performances in the Louisiana Derby won by Peace Rules, and in the Wood Memorial, won by Empire Maker, the Kentucky Derby favorite. At level weights in the Wood, Funny Cide was beaten by only half a length.

Despite his smart form, Funny Cide was largely dismissed at 12-1 in the Derby. Under a fine ride by Jose Santos, he recovered from an indifferent break, took up a position behind the pacesetting Peace Rules and Brancusi, and let Funny Cide run his race. In midstretch the issue was still very much in question, with three horses abreast and battling gamely.

Funny Cide, the horse in the middle, inched ahead. Peace Rules, challenging from the inside, was not good enough. Empire Maker, challenging just outside Funny Cide, seemed to flatten out in the final strides. Atswhatimtalknbout closed well to be fourth.

The crowd of 148,530 had come for a coronation, but Empire Maker was unable to ascend to the throne. Funny Cide came through under pressure and is the latest toast of the turf.

"He broke a little slow," trainer Tagg commented at the barn the next morning, "but he runs his best races when he breaks a little slow and is permitted to work his way forward. He had a dream trip to win the Derby. Everything worked in his favor."

Tagg, a former steeplechase rider, was a successful trainer in Maryland for some 25 years before shifting his stable to New York during the winter of 2002. When he joined forces with the Sackatoga syndicate, he thought at once of the Distorted Humor colt he had seen who was originally purchased as a yearling for $22,000. The next time Tagg went to see him, the price tag was up to $40,000, and it was up to $50,000 when he made a third visit. It was $75,000 when he returned a fourth time and he agreed to buy it for his new patrons.

"I liked him from the day we bought him," Tagg said. "But he developed a problem and it was affecting his breathing. I went to see Dr. Selway and told him of the antibiotics Funny Cide was receiving. He took him off that medication, cleared up his lungs, and restored the harmony of the cillia, which filter the mucus as it passed from the throat to the lungs. The mucus had been hardening, an aftermath of a possible respiratory incident as a 2-year-old."

Tagg had Funny Cide transported back to New York on Sunday, plans one mild work for him next weekend, and will bring him to Pimlico for the Preakness if he has digested the Derby experience in good order.

Bobby Frankel was understandably disappointed over the outcome of the Derby but always had his emotions under control.

"I can't be too disappointed," he reasoned, "because we had a big afternoon. We won three stakes and finished second in another. As for Empire Maker, his situation during Derby Week took a toll. He wasn't trained as he would have been, had it not been for his bruised foot, and was probably a little short. He didn't have the best of trips either, but I don't want to make excuses for him. He's too nice a horse for that."

Frankel, who originally was leaning toward not running Empire Maker in the Preakness, said Monday that Empire Maker was likely for the race. The trainer will also be represented by Peace Rules, who ran a strong race in the Derby and who is still a relatively fresh horse for the classics.