LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Sometime probably in 2009, a couple married 40 years headed home from Florida toward upstate New York but detoured purposely through Kentucky. They got a hotel in Lexington. They went to the Kentucky Horse Park. They paid the $16 admission.
Amid 50 or 60 people they sat in the third or fourth row to watch the park's typical show of equine excellence, including some show horses and some racehorses and the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion Funny Cide. The man marveled that Funny Cide seemed such a "ham." He smiled enough that his wife said she remembered only teeth.
Thereafter people posed for photographs with the horse, the couple got within earshot of the horse and the man suddenly said, "Hey, Funny!" The voice rang familiar, the horse's ears pricked and one of the handlers came over.
"Excuse me, Sir, do you know the horse?"
J.P. Constance had left his Funny Cide cap in the car, but he had worn his Funny Cide polo shirt. Yes, he knew the horse, for he had been one of his owners. "He's next to Cigar," Constance said this week of Funny Cide's digs. "Tell me they don't have a lot of stories to tell."
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Here it comes again Saturday, the big old cornucopia of hope, the 139th Kentucky Derby, sprinkling its annual visions across owners, trainers, jockeys, exercise riders, stable workers who do everything from keeping the dirt neat to running the outdoor washer-and-dryers that sometimes rattle just outside the barns. People who have won this before have brought their expertise and hope. People who still yearn to win it have brought their expertise and hope. People who probably have no chance to win it have brought their compromised expertise and their runaway hope.
Twenty horses and their connected bales of humanity hope.
This one has the unbeaten Verrazano, who won the Wood Memorial in New York; the onrushing Orb, who won the Florida Derby; the Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents, the Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary, the Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze, the Blue Grass Stakes winner Java's War. It has runners-up from most of those prep races: Normandy Invasion (Wood), It'smyluckyday (Florida) and Mylute (Louisiana) to name several. It has Kevin Krigger aboard Goldencents with a chance to become the first black jockey to win in 111 years, Rosie Napravnik aboard Mylute trying to become the first female jockey to win ever, and Calvin Borel aboard Revolutionary aiming for a whopping fourth win in seven years.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, the 2010 winner with Super Saver, cements his empire by entering five horses, a feat matched only thrice previously, including once by Todd Pletcher. Trainer Doug O'Neill has Goldencents and a chance to repeat, having won last year with I'll Have Another. Trainer Shug McGaughey has not won but might reward his patience -- only six horses entered across three decades -- and unleash Kentuckian sentiment with Orb.
There are ownerships with lots of investors, with ties to Irish breeding dynasty (Coolmore), to American college basketball dynasty (the reigning champion coach Rick Pitino), to old dynasty steeped in experience and prudence (the Ogden Phipps family).
And this varied cacophony converges at the 10-year mark since one of the Kentucky Derby's greatest wonders, the kind of wonder that keeps the Derby humming along on human daydreams.
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Check the winning owners for the three years leading into 2003. In 2000, the roses went to the mighty Fusaichi Pegasus, whose Fusao Sekiguchi had built one of Japan's top corporations. In 2001, on to Monarchos, and to John C. Oxley, the Oklahoma oilman who first listened on radio at age 9, when Assault won the 1946 Derby, and said, "Nothing in any life experience is like winning the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs." In 2002, War Emblem, and his owner?
That would be Prince Ahmed bin Saiman -- you know, from the Saudi royal family.
Now, come to 2003, to a sun porch in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., near the Canadian border. Here we had the "Sackets Six," the six men, in their 50s, from the same high school, among the 10 owners of Funny Cide. Here we had something else.
One, Constance, owned Meade Optical in nearby Watertown. One, Harold Cring, owned a small construction company where he employed another, Larry Reinhardt, as a project manager. One, Mark Phillips, taught Survey of Math -- Math 129 -- at a local community college, substitute-taught health at the high school and umpired high school baseball games. (He came late. He'd been calling bases.) One, Peter Phillips, retired from a utility company and worked as a construction safety monitor. Another, Jackson Knowlton, owned a health-construction firm down in Saratoga Springs.
One had just returned from helping his wife chaperone high school kids through London, Paris and Edinburgh. Two others had chaperoned a band trip to Florida when a bunch of kids vomited with flu bugs. Four lived within shouts of each other, such that one, Constance, would go out to the porch and blow a "cocktail bugle" to invite over the others. Another lived further away, so Constance would dial him up and blow the bugle into the phone.
Ten years prior, none could define "furlong." Even as Funny Cide streamed near the Triple Crown before finishing third in the Belmont Stakes, Reinhardt said, "He looks like all the rest of them." Amid the steep upward curve of learning, Constance said, he had discerned this: "Geldings are tough to breed."
They had been at a Memorial Day gathering across the street in 1995 when Knowlton had suggested ponying up $5,000 each and getting into the horse game. Cring had thought the $5,000 might work better if stashed in a coffee can and buried in the yard. As Reinhardt put it on Thursday from the construction-company office, "I don't think that we ever dreamed of having a horse in the Kentucky Derby. But to have a horse in the Kentucky Derby and then to win ..."
It did happen, and that's the trouble. That's the thing that joins with bourbon to fuel this mass convergence on Saturday. It is the thing for which people plan so ardently - or don't necessarily plan at all. Said Constance, "This is nothing you could ever plan for and nothing we ever expected. We were in the horse racing business as novices just having a little fun and ended up at the top of the game. It was phenomenal. It was miraculous."
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So here again comes the chase -- of the young and the old. A 47-year-old magnate named Fred Hooper won it on his first try with Hoop Jr. in 1945, whereupon the jockey Eddie Arcaro said, "That's the most expensive race you'll ever win," and Hooper asked why, and Arcaro said, "You'll spend the rest of your life trying to win it again." Hooper lived to age 102 and didn't win again, even if he didn't live up to the desperation forecasts.
Frances Genter, a "pretty lady" of 92 -- Dave Kindred's apt words -- won in 1990 with Unbridled as trainer Carl Nafzger gave her the play-by-play because she couldn't see over the crowd. Nick Zito won and extolled all America. A Saudi prince said to trainer Bob Baffert, "Bob, pinch me, pinch me."
Of late, there's some phenomenon called the "Mine That Bird effect," after trainer Chip Woolley drove that long-long-longshot 21 hours in a pickup truck from New Mexico for the 2009 upset win that figured to loose years of starry eyes. A logical favorite might win Saturday in the Fusaichi Pegasus or Big Brown mode. Then again, somebody might turn up in the circle with some crazy story.
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As the race runs on Saturday evening, six men who drive their own cars will gather at the Boathouse restaurant in Sackets Harbor. That place holds magic for them; it's where Reinhardt watched the 2003 Kentucky Derby because he felt too tuckered to travel again after London-Paris-Edinburgh (and, if you've ever seen adults chaperoning youth through Europe, you can understand). They try to make that their viewing place every year.
Constance's wife and two daughters and extended family members tease him: "The glory's over! Come back to Earth!" Constance often says in retort, "We're not dead yet!"
They're not. The other day at Lowe's, somebody noticed Reinhardt's Funny Cide shirt, struck up a conversation and learned he was talking to an owner. This past winter in Florida, somebody noticed Constance's license plate with its makeshift Funny Cide spelling and started asking questions.
Just Wednesday, he had his car serviced at a local dealership when somebody noticed the name and said, "You're one of the Funny Cide guys, right?" When he visited the "best-looking and smartest grandchildren in all the land" in Kansas, some of his daughter's neighbors wanted to meet him.
At the Kentucky Horse Park over in Lexington this weekend, Funny Cide will appear as part of a Derby celebration, and Constance will revel that he's there instead of "freezing his tush off all winter in Saratoga so I could visit him once in a while." The man who detoured there from Florida said, "Well, I hate to use it because I have two children but it was like a proud father where you see your kid graduate from something. You're just beaming."
The Sackets Six have hit their 60s. Some have retired. Others plan to. Constance sold his business but still works there part-time. Some have new heart stents. Mark Phillips babysits grandchildren and still umpires. In so many ways, they're regular guys with a hugely irregular biographical detail. "It totally changed our lives," Constance said, "in that forevermore we have that huge chunk of pride that will never go away."
Forevermore, he said, they will have won the Derby.
And on Saturday at the Boathouse, they'll watch again on TV as a bunch of investors, experts, laborers and dreamers go looking for forevermore.