Just over twenty years ago you could not travel on Funny Cide Drive in Sackets Harbor. It was called Mercedes Drive.
Beer-drinkers could not order a Funny Cide Light. Collectors could not display a Funny Cide bobblehead. Maroon-and-gray represented pride in Sackets Harbor Central School, a basketball team or school activity, but not a racehorse.
Had the 3-year-old chestnut gelding not run unexpectedly to victory in the Kentucky Derby on May 3, 2003 and then the Preakness Stakes two weeks later, Sackets Harbor would surely still retain its lakeside charm but lack the drawing power for racing enthusiasts.
On the 20th anniversary of Funny Cide’s victory, Sackets Harbor, in the thoroughbred world, still signifies a magical moment in time in the sport, the rise of the underdog, the idea that indeed middle class residents of a north country village can compete on the same level as Hollywood executives and Arabian princes, and win.
The Sackets Six, high school classmates who pooled their money – $5,000 apiece – to own a share in a racehorse, are part of Triple Crown lore forever. Most still reside in the village or in the north country though no longer in the business of horse racing. Only Jack Knowlton is immersed in the sport as operating manager of Sackatoga Stable for the last 28 years.
Knowlton, Jon “J.P.” Constance, Harry Cring, Mark and Peter Phillips and Larry Reinhardt rode the enormous popularity of Funny Cide, a 60-1 Derby longshot, giving interviews to USA Today, the New York Times and the Today Show, enticing the media to ride along, as they traveled in a yellow school bus to Churchill Downs.
“Here are a bunch of ordinary guys that just about everybody can identify with,” Knowlton told the Watertown Daily Times days before the Derby in 2003. “It’s like reading the story of the handyman hitting the lottery.”
On that Derby Day, north country residents gathered around their TVs, wherever they were, to watch for the first time a Kentucky Derby horse owned by one of their own.
It was no different at the Daily Times as several newsroom employees gathered in front of the small television in the sports department to view the event that Saturday, not expecting in the least that this horse with the odd name — New York-bred, does he have a chance? — would win.
Then he did.
And he did two weeks later ... by 9 3/4 lengths.
By the third leg of the triple crown, The Belmont, we had sent our sportswriter to cover what could have been the first Triple Crown in 25 years.
Funny Cide finished third, behind victor Empire Maker in a rain-drenched event that did not suit Funny Cide’s game. But it had been quite a ride, for the Sackets Six, the north country and for horse racing in general. Funny Cide was a marketer’s dream and the market burgeoned with Funny Cide shirts and hats and mugs, beer, wine, ice cream, and doughnuts. A book told the horse’s heroics.
Funny Cide would race for four more years and then was retired for good in 2007. The New York Racing Association held a Funny Cide retirement party in Saratoga Springs. Funny Cide served as a stable pony for trainer Baclay Tagg in 2008 and then moved to Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, where he still resides. Funny Cide, whose 23rd birthday was April 20, has made several appearances since. He visited the north country in 2010 and appeared in Saratoga Springs in 2015 with American Pharoah, who won the Triple Crown that year.
The first gelding to win the Kentucky Derby in 74 years and the last New York-bred to win the race remains a popular attraction.
Since Funny Cide’s captivating ride and quest for the Triple Crown, two horses have achieved the rare triple feat. There have been other thoroughbreds to draw the public’s enthusiasm and imagination, such as Smarty Jones in 2004 and Rich Strike last year. And it’s been exactly 50 years since Secretariat achieved the most famous Triple Crown of all.
But none have generated the kind of feeling, the sensation that Funny Cide did., at least the way it felt here in the north country.
As the years have moved on, the conversation around the sport has changed. Two members of the original ownership group — former Watertown resident Gus Williams and Connecticut resident Dave Mahan — have died. Horse deaths have plagued the sport in recent years and today’s Derby has been affected with a trainer suspended.
But the sport’s magic remains for those who seek it. The Sackets Boathouse is celebrating Derby Day as “the original home” of the derby party, a place where the Sackets Six have often met to recall their victory. The United Way is hosting a Kentucky Derby Social at the Sackets Harbor Ballroom.
The directions to Funny Cide Drive are easily told today: On the way into Sackets Harbor, from the east, just past Lakeside Cemetery, take a left. That’s Derby Drive. Then take the next right. That’s Funny Cide Drive.
They are roads that didn’t exist 25 years ago. A 1998 Jefferson County map of the village of Sackets Harbor is empty where those lines are now drawn south of Dodge Avenue.
Funny Cide put Sackets Harbor on the horse racing map.
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