Jack Knowlton Diary: Funny Cide’s Derby Win, Story Behind the Bus, Remembering Old Friends

The Life
Sackatoga Stable’s Jack Knowlton in the winner’s circle after Tiz the Law won the Runhappy Travers Stakes in August at Saratoga. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Managing partner Jack Knowlton and his fellow Sackatoga Stable owners stepped out of a yellow school bus at Churchill Downs to gain an upset victory with New York-bred gelding Funny Cide in the 2003 Kentucky Derby. In another unexpected twist, Knowlton and Sackatoga have returned to the national spotlight with another stellar New York-bred.

Tiz the Law will enter Saturday’s $3 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve as a solid favorite after sweeping the Feb. 1 Holy Bull Stakes, March 28 Curlin Florida Derby, June 20 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets and Aug. 8 Runhappy Travers Stakes through his first four starts this year. The Constitution colt ranks as the leading 3-year-old in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s weekly poll.

Knowlton has been maintaining a diary that is now taking followers of America’s Best Racing through a season deeply impacted by the pandemic. The Derby is not being run in May for the first time since 1945 and will represent the middle leg of the Triple Crown. The Preakness Stakes has been rescheduled for Oct. 3 at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.

Here is the sixth installment of Knowlton’s diary, written with Tom Pedulla:

As I flew to Louisville early Monday morning in Sackatoga’s bid for a second Kentucky Derby triumph, I could not help but think about Funny Cide and the wonderful ride we enjoyed with him.

It feels like it was a long time ago because it was. Seventeen years have passed. So much has happened during those years, victories and defeats, good times and bad. But nothing ever dulls the memory of the day our New York-bred gelding, a $75,000 purchase, accomplished what most thought was impossible by winning the Derby.

There were so many details to attend to, so I sought help from partners in certain areas.  I asked Dave Mahan to arrange transportation for our group. We were staying at the Galt House, which is in downtown Louisville, and Dave worked through the concierge there.

The first price quote for a bus came in at $3,600. Dave thought that was a lot of money.

“Well, how much pride do you have?” asked the concierge, who is accustomed to booking limos for Derby owners.

“Not much,” Dave replied.

And that is how we wound up with a yellow school bus for $1,200. We may not have arrived in the style of our rivals, but it got us there and we were as excited as we could possibly be when we saw the Twin Spires and it fully hit us how big a stage we were on.

We never envisioned that Funny Cide would take us there. We thought we were buying a solid New York-bred who might have a shot to compete in stakes races limited to state-breds. We kept him in that company for each of his three starts as a 2-year-old. With each start, though, he told us he was ready for much more.

Tiz the Law came to hand very quickly for trainer Barclay Tagg and his assistant, Robin Smullen. Funny Cide could be high strung and was not nearly as tactical. He could be quite the handful. Although the experts did not give us a big chance, we arrived at Churchill Downs filled with hope based on what we had seen in the Wood Memorial, his final Derby prep.

We had lost to Empire Maker, with his Hall of Fame connections in trainer Bobby Frankel and jockey Jerry Bailey, by half a length in the Wood. There are a lot of ways to look at that relatively small margin. Frankel and Bailey insisted there was no way Funny Cide was getting to Empire Maker. Our jockey, Jose Santos, assured us he would have gotten past Empire Maker with just a bit more ground. With the move from the mile-and-an-eighth Wood to the mile-and-a-quarter Derby, we had that added distance.

Funny Cide winning the 2003 Kentucky Derby. (Blood-Horse photo)

So much of winning the Derby has to do with having a horse that will stay the classic distance. We felt sure that Funny Cide would do that. After that, you need luck to go your way. It is so important to get the right trip in what is always a large field. Poor post positions, a stumble out of the gate, congestion, lost momentum have cost many good horses in the Derby.

We got a good post and left from post five. Jose took hold of Funny Cide and was able to secure a perfect stalking position in third as he saved precious ground. Jose eased him outside approaching the final turn and asked for more. Funny Cide responded and we came out of the turn in the lead. Our longshot was in an all-out drive. There would be no catching him. The added ground did make all the difference as Funny Cide turned back Juddmonte’s richly-bred Empire Maker by a length and three-quarters.

Sackatoga celebrated that night and for many nights after that. I will always treasure those times with great friends such as Gus Williams and Dave Mahan. I had been friends with Gus since 1984. We had made many road trips and attended many Giants games together. Gus was a snappy dresser with his plaid jackets and his canary yellow pants – or at least he thought so.

We called Mahan “The Skinny.” He loved playing the horses. He was an all-in kind of guy. He was constantly digging for inside information. He looked for every edge, and he was pretty good at it, too.

We lost Gus in 2007. He was 81. Dave died way too soon. He was 61 when he passed of brain cancer in 2009.

I wish both of them could be here to be part of a partnership that has expanded far beyond upstate New York but remains relatively small. I wish both of them could be here to appreciate Tiz the Law, a colt that shows every sign of being considerably better than Funny Cide.

We will arrive at Churchill with an overwhelming favorite this time. We will still use a yellow school bus to get there, and I know Gus and Dave will be with us in spirit.

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