The saga of Funny Cide: triumph of classlessness

April 25, 2004|By Stephen R. Proctor | Stephen R. Proctor,Special to the Sun

Funny Cide, by Sally Jenkins. Putnam. 320 pages $24.95.

Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, the runaway best seller of 2001, set a standard for books about horses that few writers will be able to meet. But it won't be for lack of trying.

Seabiscuit's phenomenal success -- it was also a hit movie -- stoked the market for horse-racing books. The latest is Funny Cide, the story of a blue-collar horse and his small-town owners who nearly took down the biggest prize in the Sport of Kings.

This is no Seabiscuit, but it shares many of the qualities that made that book fire the imagination.

It has memorable characters. The owners are a bunch of high school buddies from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., who toss in five grand each for a piece of the action in the horse business. They show up at the Kentucky Derby in -- God's honest truth -- a yellow school bus. It is about a charismatic people's champion. Like Seabicuit, Funny Cide came along at a tough time for the country -- the war in Iraq had just begun -- and captured the hearts of Americans with his improbable run at the Triple Crown.

And, most important, it is about something larger than horse racing. It is about social class. The Sackets Harbor boys vs. the Kentucky bluebloods and Arab sheiks. The humbly bred Funny Cide vs. the bred-for-destiny (and aptly named) Empire Maker. The Little People in the game -- the hardscrabble trainer, the mom-and-pop breeder -- vs. the rich and famous stars.

Sally Jenkins, a veteran sports columnist and author, is a smart and honest writer. She confronts, unflinchingly, the alcoholism in Sackets Harbor, and she has a sociologist's eye for telling detail. One of the town's families, she notes, managed to watch television by using two broken sets -- one with no sound, the other with no picture. The image speaks volumes about Sackets Harbor.

Jenkins also is a good storyteller and a writer capable of passages that might move a reader to stop and recite aloud. The result is a book that is engaging and insightful, if not nearly the achievement of Seabiscuit. In the end, perhaps not surprisingly, Funny Cide is more journalism than literature.

One pet peeve about this book: Like others trying to catch the Seabiscuit wave, Jenkins could not resist the impulse to glom on to Hillenbrand's success by making reference -- not once, but twice -- to her instant classic.

Bad form, that. Besides, it can't change a fundamental advantage the tale of Seabiscuit enjoys over that of Funny Cide. Seabiscuit's story climaxes with an unbelievable, almost impossible win, while Funny Cide's bid for the Holy Grail of racing falters in the mud at Belmont Park.

Jenkins does, however, have this on her side: Funny Cide's story unfolds in real time. On the first Saturday in April -- just as her book was about to hit the stores and exactly one month before the Kentucky Derby -- Funny Cide won for the first time since the Preakness, taking a stakes race at Aqueduct in New York. News reports described him as America's horse.

Cha-ching.

Stephen Proctor is the deputy managing editor for news at the San Francisco Chronicle, former deputy managing editor for features and sports at The Sun and a habitue of race tracks on both coasts.

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