Thursday January 20th, 2005

When I last saw J.P. Constance, he was sitting at a banquet table at the Kentucky Derby press party late last April. Apparently at that time I told him, "You're old news!'' I don't specifically remember making this comment, but I trust J.P., because he's not the lying sort. And whether I said this or not, I surely believed it.

Let me backtrack. Just who is J.P. Constance? He's one of the 10 owners of Funny Cide, the unlikely hero of the 2003 (as in, the year before Smarty Jones) horse racing Triple Crown, the cheap gelding who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before missing the Triple Crown when he lost the Belmont Stakes to Empire Maker in a cold, biblical rainstorm in New York. Funny Cide captured the public's attention, not only because he didn't have all his genitalia, but because he was owned by a group of 10 minor-league horse owners, including five high school buddies from the northern New York hamlet of Sackets Harbor. They call their operation Sackatoga Stable, and Constance is one of the boys. In fact, after managing partner Jack Knowlton, Constance is the primary boy. Knowlton makes the racing decisions, and Constance makes the social decisions.

It was no surprise then, that when I rang up the Constance household Thursday night, and J.P.'s wife, Karen, answered the phone, that J.P. picked up the receiver and said, "Sure, I can talk. We're putting a roof on the house next door, but it's almost Miller Time.'' In the background was the usual cacophony of conversation and laughter than seems to serve as the soundtrack to any interaction with Sackatogians.

That's when J.P. reminded me: "Tim Layden,'' he said. "The last time we talked, you said we were old news.''

Well, they were old news. Great guys, terrific to share a cold beer with and swap Funny Cide stories. But as of last May, while the racing world was seeking a new Derby winner and a fresh story, they were absolutely old news.

For three weeks in the spring of 2003, the Sackatogians took their 15 minutes of fame and ran with it from Pimlico to Belmont. Media descended upon Sackets Harbor for the privilege of standing on the back porch where the group's alliance was struck. Where Harold Cring told them all they should just bury their $5,000 stake in the ground, for all the sense of putting it into horses. They were on the Today Show, and Constance flirted with Katie Couric. "And she hasn't called me once since then,'' J.P. said this week. "I think she was leading me on.''

They rode a surge in racing interest, sharing the stage with Seabiscuit, the movie based on the book based on the horse. But then Funny Cide was beaten in the Belmont. And beaten in the Haskell. And beaten badly in the Breeders Cup Classic, a race in which he should probably never have run. In the mainstream sports world, racing lives on a tenuous edge; as soon as Funny Cide started losing, the story was over.

They wrote a book with Sally Jenkins, who wrote Lance Armstrong's autobiography. It was a good book, too, but it didn't sell many copies. Still, the Sackatogians did book signings at race tracks and casinos. The good people at Mohegan Sun put them up in suites and comped their meals and drinks. They lived like high-rollers. But at the races, Funny Cide had trouble winning; he got home first just once in his first seven tries in graded stakes this year.

And then came Smarty Jones, whose story was just as good -- maybe better -- than Funny Cide's. His TV ratings were higher. He was closer to winning the Belmont. And he was no gelding, which made him more appealing to racing purists. "Of course,'' says Constance. "Smarty Jones was riding the wave that Funny Cide started.'' He's right. Funny Cide and Seabiscuit got the public interested again, and Smarty Jones was there to capitalize.

In the week leading to last June's Belmont Stakes, while throngs of media gathered at Smarty Jones's barn, Funny Cide grazed next door in solitude. When the Sackatogians appeared in public, they gave off the vague sense of party guests who had stayed one drink too long. It was time to go, but they didn't realize it.

Or perhaps it wasn't really time to go. Last weekend, Funny Cide turned in a remarkable second-effort performance -- fading to third on the turn and then rallying -- to win the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. He will go again to the Breeders' Cup on Oct. 30, at Lone Star Park in Texas. He will not be the favorite, but he will get action. Smarty Jones, meanwhile, never ran again after the Belmont and has been retired -- sensibly, I might add -- to stud, forever enriching anyone with a piece of him.

It has been a remarkable ride for the Sackatogians. The 10 owners, and especially the five hometown boys, have remained close friends. "You want the dirt on us?'' asked Constance. "Well, there were some of us who didn't want to go to California to the Breeders Cup last year. There were some of us who didn't want to spend the (entry) money to go to Texas this year. The Breeders' Cup is in New York next year. But we go with the majority.

"Funny Cide hasn't changed anybody's life,'' said Constance. "But we haven't put a penny into the horse since the Derby. Haven't taken much out, either. We've got four other horses, and they're not winning. We wouldn't have gone to Texas if Funny Cide hadn't won the Gold Cup, because there wasn't enough in the coffers. But with some of our good fortune, we're putting in a new kitchen. My wife has always wanted that. And we're going to Texas, and all ten owners and their wives will get together and have a great time.''

They were the unlikeliest of players, and now they play on, staying a little longer at the party and welcome now. More than a year ago, they helped give their sport a needed boost. Smarty Jones is gone, now, and the Breeders' Cup needs a star. Who would have thought -- at any odds -- that star could be Funny Cide?

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