Funny Cide at the Belmont Stakes: America’s Horse

June 6, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


BETTY ANN BOWSER: Funny Cide may run into history tomorrow. If he finishes first in the Belmont Stakes, he’ll become the 12th horse in history to win all three of the big races that make up the jewels in the triple crown.

ANNOUNCER: The pace is increasing as they come to the head of the stretch.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s been a long, dry spell for the sport of kings. Affirmed was the last horse to win the triple crown in 1978.

ANNOUNCER: Affirmed got a nose in front of it. Come on to the wire.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So the prospect of it happening now has sports fans everywhere excited. Steve Haskin is senior writer for “Bloodhorse” Magazine.

STEVE HASKIN, Bloodhorse Magazine: We don’t know how good this horse is. That’s the main thing. He could be a budding superstar. So, that’s what makes it so intriguing.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How Funny Cide got here is intriguing and unlikely. His owners are not Saudi princes or oil barons. They’re a bunch of high school buddies from a sleepy town in upstate New York, Sackets Harbor. Population: 1,300. Among them, Mark Phillips; he’s a retired high school math teacher. J.P. Constance until recently was the mayor of Sackets Harbor. He owns an optical shop.

SPOKESMAN: This is a pretty big demo job.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Harold Cring, who never went to college, owns a commercial construction company. A few years ago, he brought his buddy Larry Rhinehart into the business.

SPOKESMAN: Jack, our managing partner.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: This is Jack? But the “Funny Cide” story all started one night when high school chum Jack Knowlton suggested they buy a horse.

J.P. CONSTANCE, Co-owner, Funny Cide: It was a Memorial Day party in ’95, where our senior partner, our managing partner, Jack Knowlton, brought the idea up. One of the partners started running with the ball, quizzed everybody at the party. Because we had a few too many brewskies, we waited a couple of days and met on my front porch. And the deal was, if you’re interested, bring a checkbook; if you’re not interested, stay home.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nobody stayed home. They all coughed up $5,000 to get started. They bought a few second-tier horses and poured the earnings back into the partnership. Then two years ago, they had enough to buy a really good horse, Funny Cide, for just $75,000. The idea was for Funny Cide to have a career racing in upstate New York.

ANNOUNCER: Funny Cide off the turn with a two-and-a-half-length lead.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The thing was, he kept winning. So they decided to go for the big time.

ANNOUNCER: Funny Cide to the next…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: On May 10, with jockey Jose Santos on board, Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby as a 13-1 long shot.

ANNOUNCER: And Funny Cide has won the 129th Kentucky Derby.

HAROLD CRING, Co-owner, Funny Cide: Only in America can a guy go from being a carpenter to winning the Kentucky Derby.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How much money did you bet on this horse at the Kentucky Derby?

MARK PHILLIPS, Co-owner, Funny Cide: Well, we usually don’t say how much we bet. But I only bet $80 on it. But that was a lot of money to me. It’s the most money I’ve ever bet on a race horse in my life.

J.P. CONSTANCE: I put $50 on that horse to show. That’s the truth.

HAROLD CRING: That’s the truth.

MARK PHILLIPS: I thought it was $20.

J.P. CONSTANCE: No. It was $50. I told the wife it was $20, but I bet $50 to show. I got it back, by the way.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Funny Cide’s total winnings in the derby: $600,000. Then, two weeks later, he won the Preakness by nine and a half lengths. It was only the second time a horse had won by such a wide spread. The stunning win made headlines all over the country.

MARK PHILLIPS: I think it’s America’s horse, because of everything that’s gone on in the world from 9/11 to our war. It’s something that people can actually focus on that’s positive.

J.P. CONSTANCE: You know, we’re the average Joe. And this horse is just an underling that nobody thought much about. He’s the average Joe, too.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Funny Cide is getting a lot of attention because he’s a New York-bred horse in a sport dominated by Kentucky thoroughbred and because he’s a gelding. He was gelded because of an anatomical abnormality. But Haskin says that can make a better race horse.

STEVE HASKIN: Once a horse is castrated, he only has one thing on his mind, and that’s the running. Horses who are not, have a tendency to be studdish. They come out here and they might see another horse and… not just a filly, but even a male horse. They’ll come out here and they’ll see another horse, and they’ll start acting studdish, and once a horse is not focused on racing and starts thinking of other things, that compromises his chances on the racetrack. But he’s a horse right now that is focused on only one thing. He’s focused on being a race horse, period.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And going into the final days before the race, Funny Cide is running extremely fast.

ROBIN SMULLEN, Asst. Trainer, Funny Cide: Mentally, he’s very egotistical. And he has the biggest ego of anyone going into the race.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Assistant trainer Robin Smullen says Funny Cide is so fired up from his recent wins that she could barely restrain him on his last workout.

ROBIN SMULLEN: If you say, “I don’t want you to go that fast,” then he challenges you now, where he used to give in a little bit– very little.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Funny Cide’s trainer is 65-year-old Barclay Tagg. After 30 years in the business, this is his first great horse.

BARCLAY TAGG, Trainer, Funny Cide: He’s just gotten bigger and stronger and better through this whole thing, and I mean you never know how they’re going to run. I don’t care what anybody says. You can’t predict how they’re going to run.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the Belmont is the longest and toughest race in the sport: A mile and a half. Since 1998 five horses have won both the Derby and the Preakness, only to fail at Belmont. Still — win or lose, the Funny Cide story has given Americans something to crow about.

STEVE HASKIN: The country right now is looking for a true sport hero, and horses in my mind are the ultimate sport hero. You don’t read about them trying to get an increase in their salary. You don’t look at them as, you know, fighting this clause in this contract and that clause and about they want to be traded. These horses have only one thing in mind: To go out there and perform and do what they’re bred to do.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And the owners say, win or lose, Funny Cide has been the ride of their lives.

MARK PHILLIPS: People have said, “well, what happens if this horse loses?” Will we be disappointed? Maybe for a minute or two. But do you know we won the Kentucky Derby and we won the Preakness?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although Funny Cide can never make the big bucks as a stud horse, he can continue to earn. So even if he loses at Belmont tomorrow, his owners plan to let him keep racing. He’s already won nearly $2 million, and over a five- or six-year career, he most certainly will earn more money than any gelding in history.