- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Amid the lines of black limousines packed with horse racing's royalty and New York's elite that will make their way into Belmont Park, four yellow schoolbuses should have no problem sticking out.
Filled with family, friends and neighbors from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., the buses will be carrying a party of 10, including six buddies from the Sackets Harbor High Class of 1966, that hopes to crash the sport of kings by winning horse racing's most hallowed prize. If Funny Cide, the 3-year-old chestnut, reaches the finish line first in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, their horse will become racing's first Triple Crown winner in a quarter century.
It will be a Cinderella ending to the story of 10 average Joes -- including one even named Joe -- who bought a $75,000 gelding, hired a 65-year-old trainer who has never started a horse in a Triple Crown race, then saddled him with a jockey recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. Together they won the Kentucky Derby by 1 3/4 lengths and the Preakness by 9 3/4 lengths, and can complete their improbable trifecta with a victory in their home state.
It's no wonder that they stand to make millions in book, movie and memorabilia deals. Of course, that's on top of the $7.8 million in winnings, including a $5 million bonus for winning the Triple Crown.
"It's the everyman story," said Jackson Knowlton, a health care consultant who serves as managing partner of the racing syndicate that owns Funny Cide. "People can't identify with some of the other owners that have won in the recent past like the princes, the shieks and the entrepreneur industrialists. Look at us! We're just regular guys who walked into a convenience store and bought a lottery ticket. It's pretty easy for people to see themselves in us."
With a win on Saturday, their story will have all the ingredients of a best-seller or a box-office megahit.
Friends from a small town, population 1,386, team together to become horse owners. They buy an inexpensive horse recommended to them by an aged trainer not named Baffert, Lukas or Zito. The horse is paired with a well-known jockey with a history of substance abuse and who's agent is a retired New York City police officer. The horse wins the Kentucky Derby. Scandal emerges as an investigation is launched to determine if the jockey used an illegal device to shock the horse to victory. Eventually exonerated of any wrongdoing, the horse wins the Preakness running away and with a Belmont win becomes only the 12th horse ever to complete the Triple Crown.
The plot bears similarities to the against-all-odds story of Seabiscuit, whose rags-to-riches success made headlines during the Great Depression, and later became a bestseller on the bookshelves and soon a movie to be released by Universal Studios in late July.
"If he wins, the story will obviously be much bigger," said David Mahan, one-sixth of the "Sackets Six" and owner of a catering business on Long Island who claims to have read Seabiscuit twice in one month. "But even if he doesn't, this would still be a heck of a story to tell."
Knowlton began interviewing book agents this week, and the search for an author and publisher will begin in the next couple weeks. The stakes, obviously, would increase should Funny Cide win the Belmont. The owners plan to maintain the licensing rights to the horse's name and image while entertaining merchandise and memorabilia deals.
"We don't know how to put a dollar figure on it because there hasn't been a Triple Crown winner in 25 years," Knowlton said. "We could have many commercial opportunities if he wins the race."
Opportunities, in fact, already have presented themselves. The owners are selling shirts, hats and buttons on their Web site, www.funnycide.com, as well as items through a licensing agreement with the New York Racing Association. A physical store located in Saratoga Springs is in the works, too. They've also agreed to license the horse's name to a local brewery, which plans to make Funny Cide Light, and possibly a Funny Cider drink. They've passed on doing work with several other companies prior to the Belmont, "because it wasn't the right fit," Knowlton said.
Jockey Jose Santos also stands to make money, too. His signature will be in demand on Funny Cide items, but his agent Mike Sellitto said authorized Santos items won't be available until after Saturday's race. Those that couldn't wait bought a saddle supposedly signed by the 42-year-old Chilean jockey for $256 and an 8-by-10 photo of Funny Cide running in the Kentucky Derby allegedly signed by Santos for $77 on eBay.
Visa also has a major stake in a Funny Cide win. The credit card company, the primary sponsor of the Triple Crown for the past eight years, has aired a television advertisement wishing the gelding good luck, and the company has already filmed a commercial with the horse should he win the Belmont.
"Their story is such a good one that in the event that they do win, we'll look for ways to continue to work with them," said Michael Lynch, Visa's senior vice president of event and sponsorship marketing.
Although Funny Cide, a gelding, won't be retired to stud, several members of the ownership group say they believe they can make at least as much money by keeping Funny Cide on the track.
"We could sell the horse for $10 million to $15 million (if he weren't a gelding), but we also could make that from racing alone," Mahan said. "From the three races, there's at least $7 million and then he could be running in races where the purses are $1 million for a couple more years."
"There's a lot of money on the table and we're hoping to get it, but we didn't get into this for the money," Mahan said.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.email@example.com
Funny Cide's small-town owners have become big-city media darlings as Triple Crown buzz grows louder.