CANANDAIGUA -- The Funny Cide show went exactly according to script at Finger Lakes Race Track Wednesday afternoon.
Big win, big holiday crowd, big relief for the connections of the big horse who had not won a race in six tries in over a year.
This time, the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner ran like a champion, scoring a hard-earned come-from-behind victory before a wildly cheering crowd of more than 12,000 fans. It was believed to be the third-largest gathering in track history and the biggest since 1962, the facility's first season.
"He always runs well, he always does well. Once in a while he doesn't feel like putting in the effort. But today he did," said Jon Constance of Sacketts Harbor, a co-owner of the 7-year-old New York-bred gelding who led the cheers when Funny Cide and jockey Alan Garcia returned to the winner's circle after taking the $100,000 Wadsworth Memorial Handicap by three lengths.
While Funny Cide's margin of victory improved with every stride, the race had several moments of drama for the fans who bet him down to even-money favoritism.
"In the first part, he didn't want to be close to the pace. . . . He didn't like the race track,' " said Garcia, describing how Funny Cide broke slowly and was fifth of eight the first time past the finish line on the wet track that was labeled "fast."
"When I moved, he reacted very good and he finished very strong," Garcia said.
"I was worried the whole race," said assistant trainer Robin Smullen, who stood in for trainer Barclay Tagg, who stayed at Belmont Park to saddle Nobiz Like Shobiz, the runner-up in the $150,000 Dwyer Stakes.
"He struggled. It looked to me like he struggled the whole race," Smullen said.
"I could tell leaving the gate, he didn't like the track. But he's a pretty classy guy. He got the job done today. It's nice to be in the winner's circle again. It's been a year now, so it's nice to be here again," Smullen said.
While Johnie Bye Night, the 1.70-1 second choice, set the pace and opened daylight on the field under John Davila Jr., Funny Cide ran in fifth place up the backside before making his move on the outside on the second turn.
Garcia whipped him right-handed twice in the turn and a few more times after they turned for home. Once in gear, Funny Cide trimmed the margin with every stride and finally stuck his head in front of the 1 1/8 miles-race with about 70 yards to go. He crossed the wire in 1:51.77, well off the stakes record (1:49.47) set last year by Johnie Bye Night.
"I was still pretty worried when he turned for home. . . . [from my vantage point] I couldn't see that he was making up a lot of ground. But then the crowd went crazy, so I knew he had to be," Smullen said.
Funny Cide paid $4 and topped an $11.20 exacta with Johnie Bye Night, who paid $3.20 to show.
"He didn't really relish [the track]. He's a classy horse, he's a champion and he showed everybody here today," said Jack Knowlton, managing partner of Sakatoga Stable, a group of friends who bought the chestnut for $75,000 as a 2-year-old in 2000.
Wednesday's $60,000 purse boosted Funny Cide's bankroll to $3,529,412. He has won 11 races in 38 starts with 10 seconds and six thirds. The victory snapped a six-race losing streak dating back to the Dominion Day Stakes at Woodbine on July 1, 2006.
"He loves running. He's healthy and he's happy, so let's have at it," said Smullen, who rides Funny Cide daily.
"We're just thrilled. Everybody wanted to see him win," Knowlton said. "It's another stakes. There aren't too many horses running around that win stakes races at 7," Knowlton said. "It's wonderful for racing to have all these people show up. It just turned out to be a perfect day."
The official crowd count of 11,429 was made about an hour before Funny Cide's race but President and General Manager Chris Riegle said there were more than 12,000 on hand at race time. On July 4, 1962, Finger Lakes drew a record crowd of 13,066. Attendance last year averaged 1,495 per day.