- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

BALTIMORE — They were just six high school buddies, sitting in the back yard on Memorial Day, cooking out, drinking beer and making summer plans.

They couldn’t have guessed that those plans would lead to a reunion eight years later in the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby. The six friends from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., are among the 10 unlikely owners of Funny Cide, who on May3 became the first gelding in 74 years to win the Derby.

“It’s like the lottery — a dollar and a dream,” said Jack Knowlton, managing partner of Sakatoga Stables.

Make that a dream and $5,000 per man.

That capital provided a start to Sakatoga Stables, whose name is a combination of the two New York towns, Sackets Harbor and Saratoga Springs, where two of the partners now live.

Knowlton mentioned to his friends that day in the yard behind Pete Phillips’ house on Hounsfield Street that he was thinking about getting into thoroughbred racing. He had about a decade of experience in harness racing at Saratoga Springs. His friends had no experience at all but were intrigued with the idea.

“In 1995, I had never been to a track, I had never made a bet and I didn’t know anything about a thoroughbred,” Phillips said.

The friends took a deep breath and formed a partnership that made enough from its first investment, a horse named Bail Money, to fund the purchase of Funny Cide for $75,000 last year.

The group just wanted a nice stakes horse to enter in New York-bred races and perhaps the elite Saratoga summer meeting. Indeed, they almost skipped the Triple Crown to enter the New York-bred Triple Crown, where state-bred bonuses are paramount to small owners.

Instead, Funny Cide will enter Saturday’s 128th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course seeking to keep alive his chances of becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.

It was an improbable run: The blue collars beat the bluebloods.

The Derby long has been the playground of Arab sheiks, Kentucky breeders and multimillionaires. The trophy hasn’t been won in a generation by anyone who actually needed the $800,000 winner’s share to pay feed bills.

The owners of other Derby entrants arrived at Churchill Downs in stretch limos. The 50-member party of Funny Cide’s ownership group showed up in a yellow school bus.

“I actually did a fake walk-by to see if anybody was looking, doubled back and jumped on,” said Harold Cring, one of the owners.

The party tipped the driver with $20 win and show wagers worth $400.

“It’s nothing that you would ever believe a group like ours could achieve,” Knowlton said. “We are the little guys in the game. It’s just so rewarding that everybody who dreams of owning a horse or two can look at what we have accomplished.”

Now the real temptation begins.

It would have been easy to sell Funny Cide to a rich owner who wanted the prestige of owning a Derby champion. Many promising 3-year-olds are sold at six- and seven-figure prices just before the Derby to buyers hoping to smell the roses. The price tag might now reach several million dollars — a sum that would fund the retirement plans of Funny Cide’s graying owners.

“There’s no offer that anybody can make that would separate us from this horse,” Knowlton said. “We’re not in it for the money. This is a once-in-a-lifetime horse for people like us.”

Funny Cide was gelded as a 2-year-old in order to increase his focus on running, a decision that prevents Sakatoga Stables from receiving one of the overwhelming offers from a breeding farm — more than $10million would not have been unlikely — he might have drawn.

Instead, the only side benefit is the free advertising Funny Cide’s shoes will create one day when they are hanging in the window of the shoe store in Saratoga owned by Knowlton’s wife.

Still, Funny Cide could become the sport’s biggest name in decades by racing for several more years, as did John Henry and Forego. Only injury might keep Funny Cide from providing racing with an aging star instead of one who quickly retires to stallion duty.

“To be honest, if he were a colt we’d be getting multi-, multi-, multi-million dollar offers for him to be a stud, and that would make our lives more difficult,” Knowlton said. “We’re not wealthy people overall, where somebody puts a couple million dollars in front of us and it doesn’t mean anything. If all goes well, we’ll benefit financially, but it’s not going to be a one-shot syndication kind of thing that happens too often.

“We’re getting a sense that he may become the people’s horse. We could be enjoying this horse for another four, five, six years.”

Sakatoga Stables has steadily grown — it now has 10 owners and eight horses — but the Derby profits won’t be used to buy high-priced prospects. The group plans to attend a sale in Timonium next week looking to buy a modest New York-bred 2-year-old who can race soon.

“Our approach has typically been like the NFL Draft — best available athlete,” Knowlton said. “Whatever you can find. If it’s a filly, if it’s a colt, if it’s a gelding — we don’t really care. If you like the horse and it’s within our means, let’s go ahead and do it.”

Funny Cide’s Derby victory turned the friends into the most famous citizens of Sackets Harbor since the townsfolk who repelled British soldiers during the War of 1812. The state legislature honored them. Neighbors treated them as conquering heroes, waving banners and honking horns.

Competitors still wonder how a teacher, a wedding caterer and a slew of small-business owners parlayed a two-horse stable into the envy of racing.

“We can’t ride the horse, but we’re riding the wave,” said co-owner J.P. Constance. “We know we’re never going to make a lot of money at it. It’s the camaraderie and hanging out together that we enjoy.”

This article is based in part on Associated Press reports.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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