It’s retirement time for the little horse that almost could

Jul 17, 2007 5:33 AM

In the world of sports and entertainment, there are few things sadder than watching a fading star trying to defy time.

Boxers do it most often, believing their own skills so compelling that they can turn back the hands on the clock.

Pro football players might have the instinct to do it, but usually are constrained by constant pain and battering and fear of lifelong damage.

And then there are the speechless ones, who can’t make the decision for themselves: the race horses.

The jolly high school buddies who grew up liking horse racing, and who attained fame and celebrity by the skills of their hugely popular pony, finally decided to retire Funny Cide. The old runner — 7 is old at the top level of the thoroughbred game — was still willing to give it his all, and happily for all concerned he was still good enough, with enough inherent class, to win a $100,000 race for New York-breds, at Finger Lakes.

For a horse that won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and came within a few lengths of winning it all, winding up his career at Finger Lakes, even with a win, was like an opera star singing her final performance in Omaha or Des Moines.

Unlike most Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners, Funny Cide was gelded when young. Castration does not limit performance, but it obviates breeding. So the small town buddies of Sackatoga Stable, who rode the bus to the Derby from their hometown in Sackets Harbor, New York, and became overnight celebrities after their horse won it, had little choice but to keep him running

The Belmont, which deprived Funny Cide of the Triple Crown, was the start of the long slide downhill, but it was not a slide to poverty. When the cash register was opened in the counting room after his Fourth of July finale, it was discovered that Funny Cide’s hard work had enriched his owners by $3,529,412, much of that won in his Derby and Preakness victories.

It was a giddy ride while it lasted.

Trainer Barclay Tagg said, after that last victory on July 4, "Everybody was happy; everybody was thrilled. It was a good time to do this, on a winning note." And he added, importantly, that Funny Cide was sound — uninjured — which not too many 7-year-olds are after long careers. "He’s fine and he looks great," Tagg said. "It was just time to do this."

If you do not race horses you can’t appreciate the beauty of that statement. Some owners and trainers, trying for the last drop, race their horses, good or otherwise, into the ground. The lucky ones — the classic winners destined for the breeding farms — are not subjected to that kind of treatment, but they are perhaps even more fragile than the grizzled veterans that compete in a state that trainers and veterinarians like to call "race horse sound."

That means simply that the horse has aches and pains and ailments, but can put all that aside, like pro football linemen, and play, or in the horse’s case, race, while hurting.

Unfortunately for many of them, some trainers try to extend their horses’ careers chemically, using whatever they think might help.

No one ever accused Bradley Tagg of those shenanigans, and Funny Cide’s owners — down to earth guys who loved their horse and rode him to moments of glory that will remain the highlights of their lives — would not allow Tagg or anyone to abuse their steed.

Funny Cide was a wildly popular horse with the public at the height of his career. He was still a big draw in his farewell, 11,429 turning out to say goodbye at Finger Lakes. It was the largest crowd there in more than 30 years.

It would be nice to envision Funny Cide romping retired in green pastures, but racing does not work that way. Tagg plans to convert him to be a stable pony, keeping race horses company as they go out to train.

That’s a very long way from almost winning the Triple Crown, but Tagg and Funny Cide’s owners think he’ll be happier that way.

Sic transit gloria mundi. Thus passes away the glory of this world.