A Stroll Down the Funny Cide of the Street

The recent death of Funny Cide has inspired numerous tributes and rekindled many memories. I covered his Triple Crown and his Jockey Club Gold Cup victory for The Blood-Horse and here is my behind the scenes story of the horse they called “The Gutsy Gelding.” ~ Steve Haskin

A Stroll Down the Funny Cide of the Street

By Steve Haskin

Photos courtesy of Skip Dickstein


It was 20 years ago that a horse became so synonymous with the city of New York it was as if the fast-moving Big Apple slowed down for three weeks to soak in the wonder that was Funny Cide, as he prepared to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. When Secretariat swept the Triple Crown in 1973 it also followed a 25-year drought, so maybe it was in the cards.

Funny Cide had already become the first New York-bred in history to win the Kentucky Derby, and also the first gelding to capture the roses since 1929. He followed that up with a spectacular 9 3/4-length romp in the Preakness that resounded all the way from New York City to the small town of Sackets Harbor in upstate New York, where a bunch of former high school buddies had put up $5,000 each and joined a small racing partnership headed by their pal Jack Knowlton, who had moved from Sackets Harbor to Saratoga. On May 3 and May 17, 2003, Sackets Harbor witnessed its biggest explosions since May 29, 1813, when the British attempted to destroy the town’s shipyard that was so vital to the American Navy during the War of 1812.

With the thought of Funny Cide returning to the Big Apple to make history, it was difficult getting the lyrics of the song  “New York, New York,” which had become the Belmont Stakes theme song, out of one’s head.

It also could have been Funny Cide’s theme song with lyrics like: “Start spreadin’ the newsI wanna be a part of it, New York, New York…I wanna wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep and find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap.”

Even the old standard New York song that used to be the Belmont Stakes theme song could have been changed to “The Cidewalks of New York.”

Although Funny Cide could not complete the Triple Crown sweep on a rainy, downright miserable day, he provided one of the most amazing and memorable days ever witnessed at a New York racetrack, just by being there.

He didn’t win the Triple Crown, but he made more than 100,000 people see the sun when there was no sun. He made them feel warm and dry when they were cold and wet. He made them briefly cast aside their chosen idols and worship a Thoroughbred racehorse. He made the normally hushed halls of Belmont Park resound with deafening cheers as he left the paddock. He even made a reluctant hero out of his trainer Barclay Tagg, who early in his career would haul his one horse by trailer to Penn National in a snowstorm for an 11 p.m. race and had to sit in the trailer with a blanket around him to keep him warm. He never would lose that hardened exterior and no nonsense approach to racing, always doing what was best for Funny Cide at the cost of his own popularity.

Immediately after the Preakness the New York Racing Association had begun to prepare for the massive jolt of electricity that promised to rock the huge grandstand on Belmont Stakes Day. Funny Cide may have lost the Belmont, but no one can ever say he didn’t deliver that jolt of electricity.

When it was all over, Funny Cide had enabled a New York-bred gelding to transcend the Sport of Kings and infiltrate mainstream America like no other horse since the Golden Age of the ‘70s, even making an appearance on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. He had his own store in Saratoga, selling nothing but Funny Cide merchandise, and his own ice cream that became an instant hit, constantly selling out at all the Stewart’s shops in and around Saratoga. There also was Funny Cide beer, a Funny Cide song, a Funny Cide Bobble Head, a Funny Cide children’s book, and a riveting hard-covered biography written by Washington Post journalist Sally Jenkins. In the weeks leading up to the Belmont, the New York Post published a daily diary written by, yes, Funny Cide with his own byline (with a little help from Post writer and handicapper Anthony Stabile).

To best demonstrate Funny Cide’s popularity on a national scale, the Belmont was the No. 1 rated prime-time show on network television that week, the highest-rated horse race since the 1990 Kentucky Derby, and the highest-rated Belmont since 1981. The show finished ahead of CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” and the ABC News special featuring Barbara Walters’ interview with Hillary Clinton.

Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports, said, “This rating underscores the continuing re-emergence of horse racing in general. The unbelievable saga of Funny Cide brought all kinds of new fans to horse racing, which bodes well for the future.”

We’ve all grown up with horses, and have been touched by them, whether it was Black Beauty, the Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, My Friend Flicka, Silver, or even Mr. Ed. Those feelings of our youth don’t die; they just become dormant as we move on and pursue other endeavors. But on rare occasions, a horse like Funny Cide and his fairy tale story comes along to awaken those feelings and passions, and we are all kids again.

Funny Cide wasn’t a great horse and there is no plaque for him in the Hall of Fame, but he left a legacy from Kentucky to Maryland to New York City and all the way up to tiny Sackets Harbor, and to horse lovers everywhere.

It was on the porch of optician J.P. Constance’s home in Sackets Harbor that the story began on Memorial Day, 1995. That is where Jack Knowlton arranged to have his buddies put up a total of $30,000 to purchase a racehorse. They would spend $20,000 on the horse and keep $10,000 for training expenses. They eventually brought in four of Knowlton’s friends from Connecticut and Saratoga, and Sackatoga Stable was born.

Their goal was a modest and realistic one – to break even and have some fun. And that is just what they did for the next several years, until their trainer Barclay Tagg and his assistant Robin Smullen spotted a chestnut ridgling by Distorted Humor, out of Belle’s Good Cide in late 2001 at Tony Everard’s farm in Ocala, Florida, where Tagg’s yearlings were broken. Everard had purchased the WinStar Farm-bred for $22,000 at Fasig-Tipton’s New York-bred yearling sale at Saratoga. Although the horse was bred by WinStar, he was foaled at Joe and Anne McMahon’s farm just outside Saratoga.

WinStar and the McMahons had been involved in a joint venture where WinStar would supply the mares and the McMahons would supply the breeding and raising, and veterinary care. One of the mares they sent to New York was Belle’s Good Cide, thinking she wasn’t much, being an Oklahoma-bred. When her Distorted Humor foal was a few days old, Rich Decker from WinStar called the McMahons asking to buy back Belle’s Good Cide and her foal after WinStar co-owner Kenny Troutt had researched her pedigree further and liked what he saw. The McMahons agreed, and in exchange they were given full ownership of one of the other mares and her foal that they eventually sold for $105,000.

Although Tagg and Smullen liked the horse when they saw him at Everard’s farm, they had no buyer who could put up the $40,000 asking price. As the horse progressed, his price escalated, and by the following spring Everard was asking $75,000 for the now gelding. That is when fate stepped in. On March 6, 2002, Sackatoga Stable’s 6-year-old mare Bail Money was claimed for $62,500 at Gulfstream Park. When Knowlton saw how much Tagg liked the Distorted Humor gelding, he convinced his partners to use the $62,500 from the claim to buy him. “If you like him that much, go ahead and buy him,” Knowlton said to Tagg.

Tagg, Smullen, and Sackatoga thought they had bought a nice, useful New York-bred gelding with whom they could have some fun and perhaps make some money. But in fact they had bought a piece of history.

Funny Cide showed his ability in the mornings and caught the attention of Mike Sellito, agent for Jose Santos, one of the top riders of the 1990s who was attempting a comeback, but finding it difficult getting good mounts. One morning, Sellito told Santos, “Go over and work this horse for Barclay Tagg.  He’s supposed to be a good one.” Tagg told Santos to work a half in :49, and Santos was shocked to learn he had gone in :47 4/5.

After the work, Santos went to Sellito and told him, “Whatever you do, don’t lose this horse. I don’t care if he runs in open company or against state-breds, he’s going to win first time out.”

Funny Cide in fact won his first three career starts. In his debut on Sept. 8, 2002 at Belmont Park he blew away a field of New York-bred maidens by almost 15 lengths with Santos aboard. When he came back three weeks later and won the state-bred Bertram Bongard Stakes by nine lengths, Santos told Sellito, “This is our Derby horse.”

In the one-mile Sleepy Hollow Stakes, Tagg experimented by having Santos take Funny Cide back and drop in behind horses. “I almost paid dearly for it,” Tagg said. Funny Cide won, but by only a neck over the Allen Jerkens-trained Spite the Devil, after which he was out for three months with a chronic lung infection that had clogged up his trachea.

At 3, a better-than-it-looked fifth in the Holy Bull Stakes was followed by a game third to the highly regarded Peace Rules in the Louisiana Derby. The next stop was a return to New York for the Wood Memorial, which came up muddy, Tagg, whose boots were still hardened by too many cold Maryland winter campaigns, said of Funny Cide before the race, “He’s a fighter and he’s not going to quit. Whether he handles the mile and an eighth and the mud I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out so I’ll know whether to stop all this foolishness or go on with him.”

Sent off at 5-1, Funny Cide battled with the Derby favorite Empire Maker, only to fall a half-length short, earning a whopping 110 Beyer Speed Figure. Following the Wood, Smullen was in tears, but they were tears of pride after seeing how hard the horse had tried and how much he had improved. Tagg had no choice but accept the fact that this was not foolishness; he had himself a Kentucky Derby horse.

Although he had the credentials to be a legitimate Derby contender, having held his own against Empire Maker, he was sent off at almost 13-1 at Churchill Downs, with Empire Maker bet down to 5-2.

Funny Cide was the last horse to arrive at Churchill Downs, working five-eighths under Smullen in :58 2/5 at Belmont Park. The Sackatoga team raised a few eyebrows when they arrived at Churchill Downs in a yellow school bus they had rented. No need to travel in style when this was more practical and got them to where they wanted to go. That school bus would become their method of transportation throughout the Triple Crown and the subject of several features, endearing people to Funny Cide and his team of average Joes even more.

The walk over to the paddock on Derby Day was not what everyone had expected. Funny Cide lost his composure in front of the massive and noisy crowd and was nearly out of control. Smullen, out of desperation, brought the horse to the inside rail as far away from the crowd as possible.

“Funny, what are you doing? You’re letting me down; don’t let me down here,” she pleaded with the horse. In the tunnel he was even worse, and it was a question of whether he had already lost the race. But as soon as he emerged from the tunnel and into the paddock, he settled right down and was a perfect gentleman the rest of the time.

As history shows, Funny Cide became sports’ new Cinderella story when he defeated Empire Maker by nearly two lengths in the Kentucky Derby, writing one of the great fairy tale chapters in racing lore. Tagg, who was as far from the celebrity type as any high-profile figure in memory, tried to downplay it all and just concentrate on the Preakness, but was besieged by the media. To Tagg, he was still a trainer first and foremost and wasn’t going to let the media stand in his way of training his horse. As for Sackets Harbor, the town soon was once again being invaded; this time by TV news crews and reporters. There was even a celebration at the state capitol in Albany.

Jack Knowlton put it all in perspective following the race” “We’re the American dream. Ten guys who bought a lottery ticket – but guess what? We hit it.”

And they hit again two weeks later in the Preakness watching Funny Cide demolish his foes. In the jocks’ room following the race, Santos’ wife Rita waited for her husband to return from the press conference as their daughters Selena and Savannah played ping pong and her son Jose Jr. rode the Equicizer horse pretending to be on Funny Cide and reliving the race his father just rode.

Rita sat on the couch and watched the replay. As the field turned for home she recalled, “This is when I burst into tears.” As Funny Cide began to draw away, Rita said, “Right here I’m going, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe he’s doing this. I can’t even imagine what Belmont is going to be like. This is going to be so big for New York. The kids go back to school Monday and we’re trying to be as normal as we can, but is there any way to be normal? We’re living in a dream right now.”

Leading up to the Belmont Stakes, Suzanne Tingley, superintendent of Sackets Harbor Central School, which the core of Funny Cide’s owners attended from kindergarten through high school, said “We’re a very small town and to see Funny Cide carry our school colors (the maroon and gray colors of Sackatoga Stable) to victory in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness is so special to all of us. The kids are excited, the teachers are excited, the whole town is excited.”

As mentioned earlier, the three weeks between the Preakness and Belmont were unlike anything seen in New York in a long time. The media used Tagg’s barn as Town Hall, gathering around at all hours, mainly outside its confines hoping for some sort of invitation. Tagg, meanwhile, did all he could to keep Funny Cide away from photographers and the hordes of onlookers intent on following him to the track. When he announced Funny Cide would have his final work for the Belmont on the Wednesday before the race at 8:30, it brought out crews from CNN, Fox, and all the major networks and publications. But when they arrived they were told Funny Cide had worked at 5:30. You never saw a more angry and disgruntled group of media members than those outside Tagg’s barn, especially a fuming writer from Sports Illustrated.

“He could be high strung and I didn’t want to risk upsetting the horse by having all those people running after him,” Tagg said, “I know that didn’t make me very popular.”

What was more important was whether the five-furlong work in :57 4/5 and a half in a scorching :45 flat three days before going a mile and half was too fast. The work drew mixed reviews.

“That was scary,” said Santos’ agent Mike Sellitto. Santos’ reaction was equally as short and to the point. “I’ve got chills now,” he said. Private clocker Joe Petrucione also was impressed. “He was like a runaway freight train,” he said.

Empire Maker’s trainer Bobby Frankel had a totally different view of the work. “Forget him; he’s done,” he said. “He needed that like he needed a hole in the head. If he was my horse I’d walk him for two days and pray.” When Empire Maker’s exercise rider, Jose Cuevas, heard the time, all he said was, “Oh my God!”

Ron Anderson, the agent for Empire Maker’s jockey Jerry Bailey, agreed with Frankel. “That was a terrible work,” he said. “He’s gonna run off in the Belmont and get beat an eighth of a mile.”

Like so many Derby and Preakness winners before him, Funny Cide came up short in the Belmont. He set the early pace in the slop, but tired at the top of the stretch, finishing third behind a fresh Empire Maker, who had skipped the Preakness.

Although disappointed, Sackatoga partner Dave Mahan, a caterer from Connecticut, put it all in perspective in the Trustees dining room following the race with one of the greatest quotes ever.

“It could be worse,” he said. “I could be back home stuffing chickens.”

Funny Cide would have a long up and down career racing until the age of 7, winning the 2004 Jockey Club Gold Cup and several lesser stakes, and placing in a number of grade I and grade II stakes. When he ran in the 2004 Saratoga Breeders’ Cup, a record crowd of over 70,000 showed up, which brought traffic in and around Saratoga to a standstill. Even the Northway (I-87) leading to the track was backed up for miles.

Funny Cide was never the same horse the nation fell in love with in the spring of 2003, suffering from back and respiratory problems, but he concluded his career with an emotional victory in the 2007 Wadsworth Memorial Handicap at Finger Lakes, which was as close as he’d ever get to Sackets Harbor. It was decided after the race to let him go out a winner. He retired from racing having amassed over $3.5 million in earnings.

In August, 2007, the New York Racing Association held a “Funny Cide Retirement Party” at Saratoga, as the gelding paraded around the paddock and on the track to the cheers of his fans and nibbled on his special oat-and-carrot retirement cake presented to him by New York State Senate Majority leader Joe Bruno.

The horse who stole America’s hearts became a stable pony for Tagg and was often seen tied up on the path behind Tagg’s barn, all by himself, greeting an occasional visitor. Many walked by him unaware that this nondescript pony was a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. Eventually his new job began to take a physical toll on him and it was time to let him live a well deserved life of leisure. In December, 2008 he took up residence at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions. He made an appearance at Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby week, parading in the paddock, and visited Saratoga, spending time as a guest at Cabin Creek Farm, the New York division of Old Friends. He returned to Kentucky, spending his final years at the Horse Park entertaining visitors.

Rob Willis, supervisor of the Horse Park’s Hall of Champions, told writer Tim Wilkin on that Funny Cide was “a rock star at the park; a great ambassador. People would take pictures and give him treats.”

In April 2010, the New York Thoroughbred Breeders voted Funny Cide the New York–bred Horse of the Decade.

On Sunday, July 16, 2023, Funny Cide died at age 23 due to complications from colic. A New York legend was gone. To draw a crowd of 101,864 to Belmont Park on one of the wettest, most miserable days of the year was simply astounding. And I can still hear the thunderous roar that went up as Funny Cide left the paddock and headed through the grandstand with fans shouting from both sides.

It is memories such as this that come flooding back as we all bid our farewells to a horse that turned New Yorkers into small-town folks who took pride in a racehorse they could call their own. And a horse who made a town of 1,400 people, whose only claim to fame was a battle fought almost 200 years earlier, feel like it was the center of the sports universe and a major destination for the media.

Racecaller Tom Durkin once dubbed Funny Cide, “The Gutsy Gelding,” and that is how we will remember him.  The great Bill Shoeemaker was far from the strongest or most aggressive rider, but he once said, “I have always believed that anybody with a little guts and the desire to apply himself can make it.” Funny Cide was not the fastest or strongest horse, but no one can deny he had the guts and desire to not only make it, but make it to the top, even for a fleeting five weeks that 20 years later remains ingrained in our memory.

As tragic and unexpected as Funny Cide’s death was, it has enabled those memories to resurface and recall a time when a modest New York-bred gelding stood among the giants with the whole country cheering him on. And that will forever be his legacy.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



Signup for the newsletter For new announcements, merchandise updates and other excitement here at, please enter your email address in the popup window. Our mailing list is never sold or viewed by anyone other than

Leave a Reply

71 Responses to “A Stroll Down the Funny Cide of the Street”

  1. Mary Hoffman says:

    Funny Cide brought me back to horse racing. After watching Ruffian’s breakdown on TV in 1975 I never watched another race. Then the Gutsy Gelding showed up and I gave racing another chance. I was disappointed that he didn’t win the TC, but he did his job and I was once again a fan of racing.

    I got to see him the first time I visited Belmont and attended “Breakfast at Belmont” and have a picture of him working his new job with Barclay Tagg. I have had that picture enlarged, framed and in my den ever since. After that I saw him several times at KHP, every couple years when I would visit Lexington. It was as if I could always count on seeing him. It will be strange, indeed, not to see him there ever again.

    Thank you so much for writing this; it means a lot.

  2. Cathy McElroy says:

    Thank you Steve for a beautifully written story about Funny Cide. While I thought I knew Funny’s story, leave it to you to always fill the story in even more. From the agreement between WinStar and the McMahons and Belles Good Cide, to Mr Tagg spotting Funny Cide on the farm to the claim and Sackatoga. I was always a big fan of Funny Cide and cheered him on in every race. I’m so sad he’s gone as I so wanted to visit with him at Kentucky Horse Park next visit. Thanks again Steve. Run on with heavenly herd Funny Cide.

  3. Ellie Manwiller says:

    Funny Cide’s KY Derby was the first (out of only two) Derbys at which I was present in person. I had a seat on the first row of the grandstand and there was no big screen at that time so I saw the horses the leave the starting gate and when they came around toward the finish line … I had no idea who had was winning until I heard the “Gutsy Gelding” quote. I had a bet on him so I made a few dollars and it was a very exciting day.

    I saw him again at the KY Horse Park some years later and was hoping to see him there again during my next trip to KY. He was a hero in so many ways and I was deeply saddened to hear of his untimely death.

    Thanks for this article, Steve. It brought back some wonderful memories!

  4. Karen Lawrence says:

    What a great story. I have heard bits and pieces of it through the years and I wasn’t really into racing until a few years after Funny iCde. I did visit him at the Kentucky Horse Park and after watching his races on the internet, I fell in love with him. Thank you for filling in the blanks and making his story whole for me. He was a great horse and will be missed.

  5. Charlotte Rosenthal says:

    What a lovely story honoring a special horse. I was lucky enough to meet Funny Cide and Jack Knowlton when the horse was a guest at Cabin Creek Farm. There’s a special feeling to be in the presence of a horse that wowed us with his extraordinary effort that May. And Knowlton graciously answered my questions about how Funny was doing. Thanks so much for writing up this story that touched so many of us twenty years ago.

  6. Susan Aupperle says:

    Thank you for this very informative article telling the story of Funny Cide. I really appreciate the research and work you put into these wonderful historical references. Funny Cide definitely was a bright spot in 2003.
    I enjoy all of your writing, Steve. Thank you for all that you do.

  7. Jerre George says:

    I love all your articles, Steve, especially ones like this one, that help me remember a remarkable horse. Thank you.