Just your average Joes

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:41 AM ET

SACKETS HARBOR, N.Y. -- At the Sackets Harbor Brewing Company on the far eastern point of Lake Ontario, you can order a pint of War of 1812 Ale.

Also on tap is Grant\'s Golden, named for Ulysses S. Grant, who was stationed here in the 1840s, a couple of decades before he became President.

And coming this summer, a brew named for the latest village icon, a four-legged one named Funny Cide.

\"We\'re meeting this week to talk about it,\" said J.P. Constance, Sackets Harbor native, former mayor and one of 10 owners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champ.

\"It might be Funny Cide Light or Funny Cide Lager.\"

Or, how about something refreshingly different, like the horse himself, Funny Cider?

The unlikely story of a three-year-old gelding and its small-time, small-town owners has captivated the imagination of long-shot lovers everywhere.

In a community which proudly clings to its roots and its role as an American stronghold against the British in the War of 1812, it has sparked a month-long celebration.

As you turn the corner into the village of 1,369, the impact is clear. There are banners on front lawns (\"Good Luck Funny Cide\"), at the fire station (\"Bravo, Sackets Six\"), and at the high school (\"Congrats Sackets Alumni\"). On a beer poster, one restaurant proclaims itself as the \"Funny Cide Party Headquarters.\"

\"It\'s really done wonders for us,\" said Lindsey Lefevre, a bartender at the Brewing Company. \"Now we\'re really on the map. People love a story of ordinary guys getting lucky. And everybody in town knows at least one of these guys.\"

Those guys are the Sackets Six, founding fathers of the Sackatoga Stable which paid a modest $75,000 US for Funny Cide. Much to their shock and even moreso that of the stuffy side of the racing world, the purchase price has been parlayed into more than $1.8 million and a shot at becoming racing\'s 12th Triple Crown winner.

WHO\'S LAUGHING NOW?

The Sackets contingent of the 10-owner group are all in their mid-50s and are as close to regular Joes as you will get in the upper crust of the sport of kings.

Constance is an optician. Harold Cring is the co-owner of a construction company in this summer tourist town. Mark Phillips is a part-time teacher. You get the picture.

At the Boathouse Restaurant, one dock over from the brew pub, there are blown-up mug shots of the six lads from their high school yearbook. There\'s also a temporary large-screen TV on the deck and an owner, Constance\'s brother Eric, who chided them for getting into the horse game.

\"He\'s one of the laugher guys, we had a lot of guys laugh,\" J.P. Constance said, chuckling himself. \"He\'d see us and say: \'Hey, you got talked into buying another horse, huh?\' Then he would laugh. Of course, who is laughing now?\"

Not the owners of the 15 horses Funny Cide beat in the Derby three weeks ago, or the nine he outran in a devastating victory at the Preakness 14 days later.

Next up is the final jewel, the Belmont Stakes on June 7. There, the New York-bred gelding will attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. A win at Belmont Park in his home state, on a track where he is 3-for-3 would earn Funny Cide a $5-million bonus plus the $600,000 winner\'s share.

This Memorial Day weekend, the Sackets Six will gather as they always do on the holiday for some cheer. Usually, it\'s Constance who gets it started with a toot of the cocktail horn.

\"It\'s an old bugle and when I stand out on the porch and blow it, the fellas -- we live within a block of each other -- all come over,\" he said, swearing to the truth.

They certainly did in 1995 and, a few hours later, Jack Knowlton had planted the seed. Though he lives in Saratoga Springs where he fell in love with thoroughbreds, Knowlton had stayed in touch with his high school pals and soon happy hour turned into horse talk.

Never mind that most of them had never even been to a race track or knew a trifecta from a tripod. They were in.

\"We all had our chests stuck out and said: \'Why don\'t we do this?\' \" Constance said. \"We were smart enough to know we had been drinking though, we had had a few. So we agreed to meet at my house in a couple of days to discuss it.\"

Sobriety made skeptics. Cring figured he could bury the proposed $5,000 initial stake in his backyard and in five years at least he\'d know where it was.

\"Then J.P. said to me: \'Wouldn\'t you like your obituary to read Harold Cring, who dabbled in thoroughbred racing?\' \" Cring said. \"I was the first to sign.\"

Of course, he had some explaining to do. Cring had eight children, bills to pay and this was more than beer money.

\"When I went back home, I\'m telling you if my wife would have had anything bigger than a fork in her hand she would have beat me with it,\" Cring said.

The group wasn\'t exactly hoodwinked by Knowlton. He assured them that breaking even would be a good result and anything else would be gravy. Instead, they felt it was a perfect way to honour a lasting friendship that had flourished since they had graduated high school in the late 1960s.

\"There was certainly some discussion with the wives,\" Phillips said. \"But we did it for the camaraderie, the chance to get together with old friends and share the fun.\"

So it was off to the races. In their eight years, they have stayed small, owning just nine horses, including Funny Cide.

Once a year they have a \"horse meeting\" to settle the score. Most times, they put in more money, some they broke even. With $1,000 here, $800 there Constance estimates the pastime has cost him $10,000.

\"You know what some guys can pay for snowmobiles and 4X4s and golf memberships,\" Constance said. \"This is a pretty damn cheap hobby for us and it\'s helped by the fact that we divide the liability up.\"

The five who still live in Sackets Harbor split one of five shares. Knowlton owns one himself and the three other shares are divided among four other members.

They bought Funny Cide before his racing career began only after a horse they owned was claimed for $60,000. The downside was they had lost a horse they liked. The upside was they had some money to go shopping with.

That\'s when trainer Barclay Tagg suggested an unraced gelding who, at $75,000, would be their priciest purchase.

As a New York-bred, he wasn\'t likely to be a star, but would be eligible for state-bred stakes events and perhaps a better class of allowance races.

But a Kentucky Derby winner and Triple Crown contender?

\"Are you kidding me, you can\'t dream like that,\" said Pete Phillips, Mark\'s brother and another Sackets partner. \"We wanted a good horse, yes, but a Derby winner? No way.\"

After all, a gelding hadn\'t won the Derby since 1929. And a New York-bred had never won the Run for the Roses, which should have made Funny Cide as common as his owners.

\"We don\'t mind having the tag that we are the average Joe, in fact we like that,\" Constance said. \"I\'d much rather be a multi-millionaire or be born one, but I wasn\'t.\"

UPPITY-UPS

So they went to Kentucky, worried about the exorbitant hotel rooms of Derby week and travelled to the track in their \"yellow stretch limo\" better known as a school bus.

And at the post-race party in the Kentucky Derby Museum, Constance said it became apparent this horse and his connections weren\'t exactly embraced by Bluegrass uppity-ups.

\"It was a little stuffy, it was obvious who we were and who they were,\" he said. \"There was this woman who was asking a lot of questions and then, all of a sudden, I heard her say: \'Oh my gawd, one of them is a teacher.\"

Back home, those teachers and opticians and construction workers have become local legends. When they arrived on the outskirts of town after the Derby, the fire truck was there to escort them through town.

\"I wasn\'t a real popular kid in high school, but I\'m pretty popular now,\" Cring said.

People ran out on their steps and waved and later a big party broke out on Constance\'s lawn.

During both the Preakness and Derby they were cheering so loud and jumping up and down at the Boathouse there was fear the floor would give and send the revelers tumbling into Lake Ontario.

For the Belmont, plans are being made to close down Main St,. allowing citizens to spill out over the Cide walks and on to a massive street party.

Constance just shakes his head in disbelief. As mayor, he did his best to promote the pristine little town hard by the 1000 Islands, just south of the Canadian border.

\"All the stuff we did to try to help promote this community didn\'t even come close to adding up to what Funny Cide did in a little more than two minutes,\" Constance said.

\"We know we had our 15 minutes of fame at the Derby. It got to half an hour at the Preakness and might go over an hour if we win the Triple Crown. It\'s quite a story. You just can\'t make this stuff up.\"


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