Earlier this week I was given the opportunity to interview Jack Knowlton and discuss his meteoric rise to the top of the horse racing universe. It all began twenty- five years ago.
THE FORMATIVE YEARS
In 1995 Jack and five pals of his formed Sackatoga Stable. The name was a play on words. A combination of letters from the crew’s hometown of Sackets Harbor along with Jack’s residency in Saratoga Springs creating an amusing name for the enterprise. They chose the staid checkered colors of maroon and gray that matched those of their high school for the stable’s jockey silks.
They liked the name so much that they named their first horse Sackets Six. Little did they know that eight years later lightning would strike them in the form of a three-year-old gelding with the name Funny Cide.
ON THE FUNNY CIDE OF THE STREET
In 2002 Jack and his partners paid Seventy-five thousand dollars for the chestnut gelding. By that time the ownership group had risen to ten members including a crusty, colorful character, Delmar businessman Gus Williams. Funny Cide would not disappoint. As a two-year-old he took all three of his starts, two of them easily. He didn’t show much as a three-year-old until the Wood Memorial, New York’s major Kentucky Derby prep. There he gave the favorite Empire Maker all he could handle, finishing a game second. Jack and his merry men were heading for Louisville for a shot at the “Run for the Roses.” Along with them was a bus load of friends and associates clamoring to be a part of the action.
Jack saw it like this.The sheiks and blue bloods were coming in private cars and limousines. They, on the other hand were considered a bunch of local yokels, coming to the Derby on a school bus with a New York State bred gelding. The fact that a gelding hadn’t won the race in fifty-five years and a New York bred had never won it didn’t add much prestige to their presence at the big event.
Empire Maker was the favorite to win the race. He had all the earmarks of a champion. He was owned by Prince Khalid Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. With impeccable breeding and a resume to go along with it, this Goliath looked like he was about to put the Derby field in his back pocket.
Jack Knowlton and trainer Barclay Tagg had other ideas. They knew that horse races aren’t won at the breeding shed or the magnificent horse farms in Kentucky. They are won on the racetrack. And Funny Cide was about to prove it.
The seventeen horse field approached the gate. Funny Cide took his place in the 6 slot under the reins of one of America’s top jockeys, Jose Santos. At 12 to 1 he was overlooked by the bettors, who had their eyes firmly fixed on Empire Maker.
The bell rang and Santos tucked the chestnut to the inside. He stayed there until they hit the half mile pole. Then he made his move. Funny Cide blew by the leaders. In hot pursuit Empire Maker followed. Santos hit the gas and was two lengths clear of Empire Maker at the wire. The race was over and a legend was born.
Jack Knowlton, Funny Cide and his crew were now household names in the sporting world. David had taken down Goliath and the average guy loved them for it.
Two weeks later all roads led to Baltimore for the running of the Preakness Stakes. Funny Cide took this one in a laugher, cruising home by almost ten lengths.
The gelding that was just another Derby starter two weeks earlier, was heading to Belmont Park with a chance to win the Triple Crown and immortality.
Jack was on clouds number one through nine. He and his high school buddies made an appearance on The Today Show being Interviewed by Katie Curic. If that wasn’t enough, he rubbed shoulders with the premier sports artist in the world, Leroy Neiman. They spent an afternoon together at Manhattan’s fabled eatery and watering hole “21 Club.” With its row of jockey statues adorning the entrance to the restaurant, it was the perfect setting. There Neiman invited Jack to his gallery and also spent a day with him at Belmont. To add icing to the cake, Neiman painted a beautiful rendition of Funny Cide. The original was sold at a charity event. A signed print of it hangs proudly in Jack’s office.
A BRUSH WITH IMMORTALITY
If Jack wasn’t busy enough with his new-found celebrity, his main thoughts were obviously with winning a Triple Crown. It rained all of Belmont Day in the New York area. The torrential downpour wouldn’t stop a near record crowd of over one hundred thousand fans from converging on Belmont Park to root their newfound hero to victory.
The big guy was facing five opponents in his quest for immortality. Derby favorite Empire Maker was back for this one. For whatever reason Funny Cide wasn’t quite up to the mile and a half test that day. He took the lead out of the gate and was hounded by Empire Maker until he gave way on the far turn. Down the stretch Empire Maker drew clear. The Saudi Arabian Prince had his taste of revenge. As for Funny Cide his popularity would only grow in leaps and bounds.
THE FUNNY CIDE BRAND
Funny Cide was about to take on his own zip code. He was so popular that beers and wines were named after him. Ice cream flavors showcased his name. Novelty bobble heads became a sought after collectible for the Funny Cide fans.
As for Jack, he travelled the country as a good will ambassador for the breeding of New York State Thoroughbreds..And who better than the soft spoken visionary that had done so much for the sport in his native state.
A STAR IS BORN
Let’s move ahead to the present. it’s been almost two decades since Jack and his crew pulled off the miracle in Louisville.
Again he has raised eyebrows throughout the horse racing community. Along with his trainer Barclay Tagg and a new set of owners he is poised to get a second Derby.
This chapter differs a bit from the legend of Funny Cide. This time Jack has a colt that could very well become Horse of the Year and a World Class Champion before this racing year ends.
A product of the 2018 Fasig – Tipton sales here at Saratoga, Jack laid out 110,000 dollars for the rights to the New York State bred yearling.
He was given the striking name Tiz The Law. It was apropos that he would break his maiden at Saratoga as a two-year-old last year. Then in only his second start he won the Grade One Champagne at Belmont. Jack Knowlton knew from that moment he had another New York Bred racehorse poised to run in the Kentucky Derby.
This year has been all Tiz The Law. In four starts as a three year old he has reeled off the Holy Bull Stakes, then the Florida Derby, The Belmont Stakes and Saratoga’s Crown Jewel, the Travers.
In this Covid-19 year of surprises, the Belmont and Travers were scheduled to run prior to the Kentucky Derby. The distance for the Belmont Stakes was shortened to a mile and an eighth. Tiz The Law took the race easily. As far as Jack is concerned they could have gone two miles and nobody in that field would have touched him.
Jack is convinced that the chances are strong that his colt will get the Derby and go on to Triple Crown glory. It is difficult to fault that evaluation.
If everything goes according to Hoyle horse racing fans will get to see Tiz The Law next year. Jack would like to see him go to the Pegasus to start the campaign, then on to Dubai. He sees the Whitney Stakes here at the Spa also a distinct possibility. Jack puts it this way. “Each one is a mountain to climb.”
Jack had a few things to discuss that are very important to him. Foremost he would like to see his trainer Barclay Tagg inducted into the Horse Racing Hall of Fame here on Union Avenue. He points out that the eighty-two-year-old Tagg is one of only four contemporary trainers to win all three Triple Crown Races.
He also would like to see uniform drug testing on a nationwide basis. He sees too many rules and regulations that differ in the various states that conduct thoroughbred racing.
Jack is proud of the fact that he has taken two relatively inexpensive horses to the top of the sport. He expresses that it is proof with a small investment a partnership of shareholders can participate in the game at the highest level.
Finally, Jack has become the face of New York State Thoroughbred Breeding. His success with that breed is unparalleled. In fact he has done literally the impossible. Jack has taken on the Crème de la Crème of the sport. Where the Middle Eastern Sheiks and blue bloods have an open check book to conduct business, Jack has taken them on successfully with a small stable and limited funds. He is quietly proud of that astonishing fact.
Jack Knowlton is one of a kind. When asked about the many successes in his life, he would start the answer with the word “Incredible.” It is safe to say that same word fits Jack to a tee. The life that he leads surely is incredible.