Fourteen years ago, a humble New York-bred gelding named Funny Cide burst onto the national racing scene with his mild upset victory in the 2003 Kentucky Derby (GI), becoming the first gelding to accomplish the feat since Clyde Van Deusen in 1929. Though Mine That Bird would go on to win the Run for the Roses six years later, Funny Cide has maintained his position as one of the poster boys for talented geldings, and especially their ability to achieve success in the Kentucky Derby.
Longtime Kentucky horseman Wes Lanter spent virtually every day with Funny Cide, or “Funny” as he called him, from 2009 to 2015 in his duties an equine section supervisor at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions and remembers fondly the time he spent with New York’s most beloved racehorse.
Distorted Humor—Belle’s Good Cide, by Slewacide
Foaled: April 20, 2000
Owned by Sackatoga Stable
Bred by: WinStar Farm (New York)
Trained by: Barclay Tagg
Ridden by: Jose Santos/Alan Garcia
Career Record: 38-11-6-8, $3,529,412
- Champion 3-year-old colt, 2003
Notable Victories: 2003 Kentucky Derby, 2003 Preakness Stakes (GI), 2004 Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI).
The Golden New York Apple
Lanter is no stranger to the popularity of a Kentucky Derby winner, having spent time in his career around several different ones, including Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Silver Charm and Grindstone, just to name a few, so getting to work with Funny Cide wasn’t out of his wheelhouse. He knew the horse, but he had no idea just how popular the big chestnut really was.
“I watched him run, of course, and I knew he was a fan favorite, but I had no idea to what extent Funny had fans,” Lanter said. “I mean, every Derby winner has his or her own set of followers, but Funny’s fans may be the most dedicated. They make their pilgrimages from everywhere, but especially New York, year after year, without fail.”
Now 17 years old, Funny Cide raced through the middle of his 7-year-old season and retired a winner, taking the Wadsworth Memorial Handicap at Finger Lakes in his swan song before taking up duties as a stable pony in his trainer Barclay Tagg’s operation. He maintained that role for more than a year before the demands of being a pony caught up with him and his owner, Jack Knowlton of Sackatoga Stable, decided he’d be best suited to receive his fans at the Kentucky Horse Park. Though the facility is nearly 1,000 miles from New York, Knowlton felt the Horse Park was better suited to host his multiple visitors from all over, not just from the Big Apple.
“I’ve worked with a lot of popular horses,” Lanter said. “And Funny had fans visit from all over, but every year streams of people would come from New York to see their boy. I mean, he is the only New York-bred Kentucky Derby winner and, because of it, folks flock from New York to see him. They love him.”
Grumpy Cide and Pancakes
One of the great myths in racing is that gelding a horse improves its disposition. Lanter, who also spent a significant amount of time over his career with the most famous racing gelding, John Henry, knows all too well that nothing could be further from the truth. While Funny Cide has always been fairly easy to deal with, he’s also highly intelligent and knows exactly what he likes and what he doesn’t — and he isn’t afraid to express himself on those issues.
“At this stage of his life, Funny Cide knows how he wants to be treated and how he doesn’t,” Lanter said. “He and I got along just fine, but if he doesn’t like you he lets you know with a swipe of his teeth or even his expressions. I heard some people called him ‘Grumpy Cide’ and I can’t think of a better nickname. He’s like the old man on the corner; you don’t want to throw your ball into his yard or you’ll never get it back. He has his kind moments, but he can be grumpy.
“Once (jockey) Jose Santos’ son came to the Horse Park to visit. I remember it so well because it was the coldest day ever. He told me this story about how his dad went up to Funny Cide one day when he was still racing and was kind of play boxing with him and Funny got a hold of his finger pretty good. And it was bad enough that he had to miss a day or two riding. But that’s Funny Cide.”
And every time fans turned up to see the shiny chestnut, they came bearing gifts, usually in the form of snacks or goodies, some good and some not so good, but all with good intentions behind them — even if they weren’t the best choices for the dual classic winner.
“Funny Cide has some sugar issues unfortunately,” Lanter explained. “He has to have his sugar intake limited and sometimes it was tough to get people who wanted to feed him peppermints to understand it may not be good for him. The craziest thing that happened once came from [writer] Sally Jenkins’ book. In it, she talked about how Funny Cide once ate pancakes and baked apples — hot, sugary baked apples. So not something that’s good for any equine’s diet. One day, I get a call at home from someone at the Hall of Champions who told me the volunteers were feeding Funny Cide pancakes and baked apples. I rushed over there to stop them. They didn’t know they were potentially hurting him and meant no harm, but I thought, ‘my God, what am I gonna tell Jack Knowlton and his Sackatoga partnership when they open up Funny Cide and they find a belly full of pancakes?’
“He had this one devoted fan, though, who brought him what turned out to be his favorite treat. And it’s actually good for horses. They’re called Herballs. A nice lady who is a huge fan of Funny’s named Elizabeth de Smet brought them for him and he loved them, so she sent me dozens of them for Funny after that over the years. I guess they’re made of herbs and stuff because they smell like they could go right into a big pot of spaghetti. I never met a horse that didn’t love them and they were perfect for a horse with sugar issues who can’t have a lot of peppermints. To this day they are Funny’s favorite treat.”
The Mayor of Saratoga Brings Funny Cide ‘Home’
Lanter remembers that some of Funny Cide’s most regular visitors to the Kentucky Horse Park were members of the Sackatoga Stable partnership and the syndicate manager, Jack Knowlton.
“[Knowlton] would always visit when it was Derby time or when he had a reason to be at Keeneland,” Lanter said. “What a great guy, what a legend. I mean, my God, he’s the unofficial mayor of Saratoga. I mean, all of the Funny Cide people are great. Barclay [Tagg] and Robin [assistant trainer Smullen] are tremendous people. The whole Sackatoga Stables crew went to the Derby in a school bus. They had a lot of fun and did it the way it should have been done. I always admired that.
“So [Knowlton] arranged for Funny to go to Saratoga in 2013 and again in 2015 to help raise money for New York-bred OTTBs. As an animal lover, he’s very involved in animal rescue and he’s very involved with Old Friends Cabin Creek in Saratoga. So, we flew Funny to Saratoga and bunked at Old Friends.
“On Funny Cide Day at the racetrack we were over in the stakes barn and, on one of those big race days, like Vanderbilt Stakes Day or something, we walked around in the paddock at Saratoga for more than an hour. The fans could not have been more appreciative both times we went. They stood along the rail in the paddock, all stacked a few rows deep, and took pictures and posted them on social media. In 2013, one person got on her cell phone and I could hear her say, ‘My God, I’m like five feet from Funny Cide!’ So I said, ‘Here, let me bring him over a little closer.’ And she went nuts; she was so excited.
“In 2015, it was like a celebration. Barclay [Tagg] came out and they had the Funny Cide bobble head and he and [Knowlton] were signing them for everyone. The next day, we had a meet-and-greet at Old Friends up there and several hundred people turned out. One guy just happened to stop by that day not knowing about the Funny Cide reception. He said to me, ‘You don’t know how much Funny Cide meant to my father. He was his favorite horse of all time. Unfortunately he was dying during Funny Cide’s run for the Triple Crown, but he wore his Funny Cide t-shirt for the Derby and he wore his Funny Cide t-shirt for the Preakness. He said all he wanted to do was live long enough to see Funny Cide win the Triple Crown. He didn’t win the Belmont and he died two days later, but he was buried in his Funny Cide t-shirt.’ That was an emotional day for me. It was like kismet for that guy, because he didn’t know [about the event], but coincidentally showed up on that day.”
Why Funny Cide Means So Much
Lanter was born and raised in central Kentucky and has spent his entire life in the Bluegrass’ signature industry. Many racing jurisdictions have strong state-bred programs in place, but, by and large, the horse racing game relies on Kentucky to provide the majority of horses needed to fill races on a daily basis from coast to coast. But as proud as Kentuckians are of their horses (and Kentucky basketball), New Yorkers are known to be proud of everything, so when Funny Cide came along it was easy for natives of the Empire State to get on the bandwagon.
“Funny Cide has such a tremendous fan base with New Yorkers especially because I think a lot of other people wanted to discount him because he was a New York-bred,” Lanter said. “But that wasn’t fair. I mean, he did help put Distorted Humor on the map, but it wasn’t so far-fetched to have a New York-bred of his quality; they breed a lot of great horses up there. But it was always like he had a lot to prove, especially with the drama after the Derby.”
The “drama” Lanter is referring to were accusations published in the Miami Herald a few days after the 2003 Derby purportedly showing Jose Santos in possession of a buzzer, or an illegal battery-powered device sometimes used to shock a horse and encourage it to run faster. The photo of Santos and Funny Cide was taken during the gallop out and allegedly showed the rider carrying a “buzzer” and the image was coupled with a story about a misunderstood post-race comment about wearing a “Q-Ray” ionized bracelet made for balance and healing, which was interpreted by the writer as “cue ring” thanks to his Santos’ thick South American accent. Nobody knew what a cue ring was — as nobody could find anything that existed with that name — and, after an investigation by Kentucky stewards, Santos was cleared of all wrongdoing and went to Baltimore with a Preakness win on his mind.
“Jose wanted to prove to everyone so much that he won the Derby fairly, so he went out there and won the Preakness by open lengths,” Lanter remembered. “Nobody could blame him. I mean, you may be only lucky enough to run in the Derby once, let alone win it, and then BOOM! Someone tries to take the joy of it away like that? I think all of New York felt that and got behind Funny Cide and the group even more so and it carries to today.
“I heard Jose got the largest libel settlement in newspaper history because of that and I don’t know if it’s true, but I hope so. That situation alone made anyone want to root for Funny Cide.”
Farewell, Friend. For Now
In 2015 Lanter left his position at the Kentucky Horse Park to pursue other opportunities in the Thoroughbred industry and begin work on this book. It wasn’t easy for him to say goodbye to any of the horses under his watch and he never anticipated it’d be especially hard to say goodbye to Funny.
“It was a sad day because I had grown to love him,” Lanter remembered. “That last day we went for a walk like we always did. I used to walk him all over the park because he’d get bored and it was fun for him to get out and see things. Sometimes on our walk people would stop and ask who he was. I’d always say, ‘Funny Cide’ which was usually met with a, “Really? How cool.’ I miss him, I hated saying goodbye. He was my buddy. I know that if I went out there and called to him at the fence of his paddock he’d come running. I’ll go visit him soon, when I’m not still missing him so much.”
Lexington, Kentucky, native Wes Lanter has spent most of his life surrounded by some of the best thoroughbreds of the last generation. The veteran horseman served as both stallion groom and/or stallion manager at the most successful and popular breeding farms in the Bluegrass, including Spendthrift Farm, Three Chimneys and Overbrook Farm, in addition to a pair of separate stints at the Kentucky Horse Park. Over his nearly 30-plus-year career, the 52-year-old has worked with three Triple Crown winners, both thoroughbred and Standardbred, five additional Kentucky Derby winners and multiple champions and Hall of Famers.
A walking encyclopedia of most things thoroughbred racing, Lanter is sharing his favorite stories about the horses whose lives he considers himself to be privileged to have been a part of throughout his career. Since leaving his position as Equine Section Supervisor at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions in 2015, Lanter has been working on compiling stories about his horses and deciding where his next life chapter will come from. Lanter also is the proud father of 20-year-old Noah, a standout baseball pitcher and outfielder at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minnesota.