Racing: The hobby horse on track to become a new American legend

Funny Cide's rags-to-riches tale may have one final audacious twist By Richard Edmondson in Dallas
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The Independent Online

For many old-time horses the Dallas and Fort Worth conurbation used to be the start of a great journey, driving great herds of cattle from the stockyards north through Texas to the beef-starved states beyond.

For many old-time horses the Dallas and Fort Worth conurbation used to be the start of a great journey, driving great herds of cattle from the stockyards north through Texas to the beef-starved states beyond.

On Saturday, at Lone Star Park, these same acres may also provide a glorious terminus for just a single horse, one which has come to embody the United States dream.

It is a quirk of American racing that, for the last two seasons, their Classic series has been dominated by unlikely heroes. At a time when the sport has been popularised on screen by the story of an earlier blue-collar horse in Seabiscuit, life has come to imitate art.

This year it was Smarty Jones, the colt with modest connections and a journeyman jockey, swiftly and controversially retired to stud after failing by just a length to complete the Triple Crown by adding the Belmont Stakes to his victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Funny Cide, who also failed at the last stroke in New York in 2003, is still going however. The horse owned by a group of high school buddies remains in training principally for two very good reasons and both of those have been chopped off. As a gelding he holds no residual value as a stallion.

Funny Cide fights on and appears to have picked up the sword again after a winless streak. The four-year-old went part way to erasing the memory of the Belmont when he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the Big Apple earlier this month. More significantly he set himself up for a shot at America's most significant contest outside the Triple Crown. Here at Lone Star Park tomorrow, Funny Cide will attempt to complete his redemption in the Classic, the $4m centrepiece of Breeders' Cup XXI, an event shamelessly tagged by its organisers as the world thoroughbred championships.

The Funny Cide story goes back to 1995 and a barbecue on the shores of Lake Ontario at Sackets Harbour (population: 1,386), when, over a few beers, a bunch of former high school students decided on a hobby that would further bind their friendship. They tossed in $5,000 (£2,800) each and bought a horse, even though several of the syndicate did not know even how to place a bet. They dreamed, but they did not dream of Funny Cide. They had not had that much to drink.

The syndicate, which was later extended to 10, embraces a retired maths teacher, an optician and a caterer. It should have also included a prospector, for the group discovered that, for $75,000, they had hit equine gold. Funny Cide won the Run For The Roses (Kentucky Derby) and his owners won nationwide admiration for their folksiness by arriving at Churchill Downs in a yellow school bus.

Then came the Preakness and Funny Cide became much more than a racehorse. He became a business. The gelding has his own website that offers merchandise including keychains, mousepads, wine corks and a six-song compact disc by Blue Hand Luke. Owners marketed three alcoholic drinks, Funny Cide Light Beer, Funny Cide Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc Reserve, making him perhaps the first horse to have an alcoholic beverage named after him since Red Rum.

Funny Cide also possesses a dramatic jockey in Jose Santos, who is almost a movie in himself. The Chilean-born rider has followed the path of plenty of Hispanic jockeys before him, rising from abject poverty to riches and then over the other side to self-destruction. Santos only just beat a cocaine habit in the 1980s, and his career only just survived horrific injuries to his right arm the following decade and then a dramatic weight gain.

Controversy continued to ride pillion with Santos even as he won the Derby. There were accusations, based on a blurred photograph, that he had been carrying a buzzer in his right hand, perhaps a device to shock Funny Cide to greater heights. When he won the Preakness, the jockey's celebrations included a theatrical wave to the grandstands to confirm that his hand was indeed empty.

Since that day at Pimlico, though, Funny Cide had won just twice, and was supping in the last-chance saloon until his last contest. "I told the owners that if he got beat in that race, even if it was by an inch, I didn't want to go to Texas, because he's been beaten enough this year," Barclay Tagg, the trainer, said.

At yesterday's track press conference Santos insisted Funny Cide was in better shape than for his Classic challenge 12 months ago. He will have to be as he beat only one home at Santa Anita.

Funny Cide himself was up before dawn for a light piece of work under the floodlights. He wore four white socks and seemed to have wool all around his body. But this is an animal worth protecting.

The big horse was then given a paddock reconnaissance by Tagg's partner, assistant and Funny Cide's exercise rider, Robin Smullen, who knows "the people's horse" as well as anyone. "I guess I have to describe him as having a pretty big ego," she said. "He knows he is the big man on campus."

The Sackatoga Stable owners are bubbling again as the belief spreads that Funny Cide has regained the masterly touch, that a further chapter is about to be written in an already outrageous story. "Barclay is practically gushing about how well the horse is," Jack Knowlton, a spokesman, said yesterday. "To hear him say that Funny Cide is doing better than he ever has is music to my ears."

The conductor himself arrives in Grand Prairie today. Tagg, who one Christmas Day was abandoned by a patron and found himself with a single horse in his barn, arrives to be reunited with the one horse which has made his name. "My main goal is to have him running for four or five years," the 67-year-old trainer once said. "My goal is to keep him famous and keep him happy."

The first element is already assured.