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Remembering Funny Cide, a gutsy longshot of a horse who nearly won the Triple Crown

Jockey Jose Santos rides Funny Cide to victory in the 128th Preakness Stakes in May 2003.
Al Behrman
/
AP
Jockey Jose Santos rides Funny Cide to victory in the 128th Preakness Stakes in May 2003.

One of the most storied horses in thoroughbred racing history, Funny Cide, died this week at the age of 23.

Small in stature, the feisty chestnut was an unknown when he was entered into the Kentucky Derby in 2003. Funny Cide faced 12-1 odds — the definition of a longshot. A New York state-bred horse had never won the big race.

But when the gates opened on that May morning at Churchill Downs, Funny Cide ran strong.

"I could not believe my eyes," one of his co-owners, Harold Cring, recalled in a 2007 interview with North Country Public Radio. "That's our horse out front. I kept waiting for something to fall apart."

Funny Cide held on to win. It was a life-altering moment for the horse's owners, a group of high school friends from a tiny town called Sacketts Harbor in northern New York who had taken up horse-racing as a hobby.

"We were just sitting around having a couple cocktails as we were often doing, and the idea came up to buy a horse," said Jon Constance, the village's former mayor and another of Funny Cide's co-owners. "From that day forward, our life has changed."

The Kentucky Derby win was also a pinnacle moment for veteran jockey Jose Santos, who retired in 2007. "I came all the way from Chile chasing a dream and I got the dream, you know, and I did it with Funny Cide," Santos said.

At first, the win in Kentucky seemed like a fluke. It was widely portrayed as a feel-good story about a blue-collar horse owned by a bunch of small-town guys who got lucky.

Then two weeks later at the Preakness Stakes, Funny Cide won again, dominating the field by almost 10 lengths.

In the end, Funny Cide wasn't able to capture the Triple Crown. A larger, more pedigreed thoroughbred called Empire Maker won the Belmont Stakes that year.

Still, it was an epic run. By the time Funny Cide retired in 2007, he'd won more than $3.5 million for his owners.

"Funny Cide just loved to run," Constance recalled in an interview with NPR this week. "He loved to get out there and loved to show the rest of them. He might have been small but he was powerful."

The former mayor of Sacketts Harbor said many of the horse's co-owners who experienced that remarkable year together still live in the village.

"We seldom go a week without going to somebody's house. We're all very close. And by the way, I live on Funny Cide Drive now," Constance said, noting that the village named a new street after their famous horse.

Funny Cide spent the last 15 years of his life in comfort at a horse farm in Kentucky before passing this week of complications linked to cholic.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.