Kentucky Derby Winner Funny Cide Dies

Funny Cide | Horsephotos

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Funny Cide (Distorted Humor), the popular New York-bred gelding, who flirted with the 2003 Triple Crown and was the 3-year-old champion, died Sunday from complications of colic.

Owned by Sackatoga Stable, formed by Jack Knowlton and based in upstate New York, Funny Cide won the GI Kentucky Derby and the GI Preakness S. His bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 ended in the GI Belmont S., when he finished third behind Empire Maker (Unbridled) over the sloppy course.

Funny Cide's unlikely rise to the top of the 3-year-old male division and his enthusiastic group of owners–who rode from their hotel to Churchill Downs for the Derby in a yellow school bus they rented–became a national story that transcended racing. He was the first New York-bred and the first gelding since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929 to win the Derby.

After being notified of Funny Cide's passing by officials at the Kentucky Horse Park–where he was a featured resident for 15 years–Knowlton drove over to Barclay Tagg's barn at Saratoga Race Course for what was a teary conversation to tell the news to the veteran trainer and his assistant Robin Smullen, who was his exercise rider.

“It's sad,” Knowlton said. “Obviously, life-changing for me, personally.”

Tagg has saddled 1,613 winners and developed five millionaires during his 40 years as a trainer. Funny Cide was his first Classic race winner and is his leading earner.

“He's one of the best and he just did a lot for us in every way,” Tagg said. “Some horses are great race horses. Some of them are good friends. He just had a lot of charisma with him.”

Smullen noted that Funny Cide knew he was good.

“And he'd remind you of it, too,” Tagg said.

Knowlton said he was told that Funny Cide appeared to be fine Saturday, but began showing signs of distress in the evening. He underwent surgery, but could not be saved.

Tagg purchased Funny Cide privately for Sackatoga for $75,000 as a 2-year-old. A member of Distorted Humor's first crop, he showed promise later that year, winning all three starts against New York-bred company and was the state's juvenile male champ. He emerged as a Triple Crown series-caliber runner early in his 3-year-old season, though he was winless in three starts before the Derby. He had a troubled trip starting from post 13 in the GIII Holy Bull S. and finished fifth on Jan. 18 at Gulfstream Park. On Mar. 9 at Fair Grounds, he ended up third, but was moved up to second on the DQ of Kafwain, in the GII Louisiana Derby. One month later, he turned in a strong performance in the GI Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, ending up a half-length behind Empire Maker.

At Churchill Downs, the Bobby Frankel-trained Empire Maker was the Derby favorite and Funny Cide was nearly 12.80-1. Frankel was dealing with a hoof issue with Empire Maker, but decided to start the colt. Under future Hall of Fame jockey Jose Santos, Funny Cide prevailed over Empire Maker by 1 1/4 lengths. Two weeks later in the Preakness, Funny Cide was much the best in the 10-horse field and won by 9 3/4 lengths.

Sackatoga's memorable Triple Crown run ended at Belmont Park against five other runners. Funny Cide went to the lead early, but could not maintain his advantage against consistent pressure and ended up five lengths behind Empire Maker, who had skipped the Preakness.

“I tell everybody, I will go to my grave wondering what if it didn't rain five inches on Belmont Day what would have happened?” Knowlton said. “That's not to say that Empire Maker was probably more likely to win the Belmont, but Funny hated that racetrack. So, who knows? We'll never know.”

Funny Cide competed in six seasons and was retired in 2007 with a record of 11-6-8 from 38 starts and purse earnings of $3,529,412. At the time of his retirement, he was the top New York-bred in purse earnings. Besides the Derby and the Preakness, he also won the GI Jockey Club Gold Cup as a 4-year-old.

Though Funny Cide had strong ties to Saratoga, he was foaled a McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, and Knowlton ran the stable in Saratoga Springs, he only made two starts at Saratoga Race Course: second to Evening Attire in the 2004 GII Saratoga Breeders' Cup H. and an eighth in the 2006 GI Woodward S. He was being aimed for the 2003 GI Travers S. at Saratoga, but was sick after running third in the GI Haskell Invitational on a very hot day and missed Saratoga's marquee race. Seventeen years later, Sackatoga and Tagg won the 2020 Travers with Tiz the Law (Constitution).

A street sign bearing the names of Funny Cide and 2003 GI Kentucky Oaks winner Bird Town owned by Marylou Whitney is at the intersection of Union Ave. and East Ave. in Saratoga Springs, near the main entrance to the famous track.

Funny Cide made three appearances at Saratoga Race Course after he was retired, most recently in 2015.

Knowlton said part of his annual trip to the Kentucky Derby was a visit to the Horse Park to see Funny Cide. He also saw the horse the three times Keeneland hosted the Breeders' Cup.

“The last couple of years he looked better than he had in a while,” Knowlton said. “He had lost some weight, but the right way. His coat was shining. Everything was good. They would bring him out in a grassy area. People could take pictures. Kids could feed him peppermints. It was all good.”

Knowlton said the Kentucky Horse Park was the ideal retirement venue for Funny Cide.

“It was fabulous. He had 15 years there,” Knowlton said. “People got access. He was the star of the show down there, without any question. The most popular horse. The biggest draw.”

Knowlton grew up in the tiny village of Sackets Harbor on the eastern end of Lake Ontario. He developed an interest in racing as an adult and during one reunion convinced five of his high school buddies to form a small stable. It was named Sackatoga by blending Sackets Harbor with Saratoga Springs, where Knowlton and his family lived. Funny Cide gave the everyman stable of the original Sackets Six and four other investors a memorable ride.

“There was the whole experience of the Sackets guys,” Knowlton said, “and winning the Kentucky Derby. Then all the hoopla.”

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