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Family affair: Distorted Connection and her foal, Funny Cide’s half brother. Photo Martin Benjamin


Nature and Nurture
Champion horse Funny Cide spent his formative year at McMahon of Saratoga Thouroghbreds, where he’s still regarded as part of the family
By Kirsten Ferguson

It’s a steamy Friday morning at McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, a horse farm just east of Saratoga Lake in the town of Saratoga. The Fitch Road farm is greeting-card pretty, with Irish-green barns, a stately 200-year-old brick farmhouse and wooden-rail fences that follow the gentle curves of the fields.

In the pastures and barns, flocks of workers are all business, prepping horses for the annual Preferred New York-Bred Yearling Sales event that gets under way the next day in Saratoga Springs. In one pasture, a chestnut foal stands perfectly calm as college-age groomers lather big suds of soap across his back and belly with the ease of car-wash attendants. Meanwhile, farm owners Anne and Joe McMahon hold an impromptu meeting at the back of the horse barn to discuss treatment for an injured horse.

Only a homemade banner, unfurled from the top of the main barn, lets passersby know this hasn’t been a typical summer on the farm. “We love you, Funny Cide,” the sign reads. Soon cars start lining the side of the road, filled with people who want a glimpse of the place where the much-loved thoroughbred was born. “It’s been a crazy summer for us,” admits Anne McMahon. “Funny Cide certainly made it a lot busier. We got so many phone calls. Our house was full of flowers and cards. That doesn’t happen very often to us, and maybe never will again.”

When Funny Cide made history this year as the first New York-bred horse to triumph in the Kentucky Derby, the McMahons were at Churchill Downs to watch the horse they raised win the world’s most prominent horse race. And they were in the stands at Pimlico cheering the horse two weeks later when Funny Cide blew away the field in the Preakness Stakes. By then, Funny Cide was a star: an underdog New York horse with a shot at the Triple Crown. In June, the Belmont Stakes ended his bid for the elusive racing title, but Funny Cide fever lives on. The horse has a Web site, a namesake wine and beer, a theme song and a street dedicated to him in Saratoga Springs.

“Funny Cide’s owners call me Funny Cide’s mom,” McMahon says.

The McMahons, according to racing rules, are not the actual breeders of Funny Cide. That distinction (and the resulting award money) belongs to the people who owned Funny Cide’s mother at the time she gave birth. But the McMahons raised Funny Cide from his birth until he was sold a year later. “We’re a commercial breeding farm,” McMahon explains. “Most of our stock is owned by other people. Buying racehorses is too risky a way to make a living. Our monthly income [from the breeding operation] is what paid the bills and allowed us to raise a family.”

Anne and Joe McMahon first met, appropriately enough, at Saratoga Race Course in the late 1960s, when Joe was a teenage backstretch worker from Mechanicville and Anne was a Skidmore College student with an interest in horses. In 1971, the newly married couple bought their Fitch Road place, which at the time was a Christmas-tree farm. Horses must have been in their blood, because all of the McMahon’s five children have since become involved in the industry. Their son John is in charge of their farm’s operations, and his wife Kate works with the yearlings. Daughter Jane, who recently married Chilean horseman Rodrigo Ubillo, used to gallop horses at the Saratoga racetrack for trainers like Nick Zito and Bill Mott. Now Jane works full-time on the family farm, along with her sisters Kate and Tara. And their brother Mike is a bloodstock agent in Kentucky, where his wife Natanya Nieman is the resident veterinarian at Windstar Farm, the official breeders of Funny Cide.


Working together, the McMahon family has turned a former tree farm into a world-class thoroughbred operation. They board stallions and mares, advise owners on breeding options and prepare year-old horses (called yearlings) for sale. “We groom the foals, watch them and teach them to walk smartly—like they’re going someplace,” Anne McMahon says. “The horses are walked everyday to build up their muscles and get rid of their hay belly.”

The horses need to be in tip-top shape when they are sold as yearlings, because then they are judged on little other than bloodlines and physical attributes. “The yearlings have never had a saddle on them,” McMahon explains. “At that age, no one has been on their backs. Their value is all based on confirmation and whether they look like they’re going to be athletic, the way they carry themselves.”

Of course, some of the best racehorses have become champions despite their imperfections. As documented in the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, the renowned racehorse Seabiscuit was overlooked for years because of his oddly shaped legs (and willful attitude). Similarly, McMahon recalls that Funny Cide was a less-than-perfect looking colt: “Funny Cide had a few confirmation flaws. He had a clubfoot, for one. But with blacksmithing you can correct some things. Also, Funny Cide had a roached back—his backbone kind of stuck up a little bit more.”

Funny Cide also suffered from an undescended testicle, which led to the decision by his owners to have him gelded (castrated). “They had him gelded because they felt he wasn’t comfortable,” McMahon states. “If a horse isn’t comfortable, he’s not going to be a good racehorse. People say they shouldn’t have gelded him, but Funny Cide wouldn’t have been a star if he had stayed a stallion. More horses should probably be gelded. For one, gelded horses don’t develop as much muscle mass, so they’re lighter and that protects their legs.”

So far, McMahon admits, the effect of Funny Cide fever has been “more of a tourist thing” than a factor that has increased her farm’s business. The success story of Funny Cide’s owners, a group of local residents who pooled their resources to form Sackatoga Stable, has increased interest in horse-owning partnerships, she notes. More people are now realizing that you don’t have to be a Saudi prince or a billionaire financier to own a racehorse. But, most of all, McMahon hopes that Funny Cide’s success will attract more attention to New York’s Breeding and Racing Program. Enacted by state legislation in 1973, the program promotes New York horse farms. The initiative has established rules to define New York-bred horses, created special races restricted to New York horses, and made it easier for breeders to earn a share of a race’s purse money.

“California and Kentucky have programs like this,” McMahon says, “but New York’s is the best. The main focus of the program is to protect green space in New York and to improve the bloodstock of New York horses. The fact that the New York racing program is doing well helps not just us, but also the smaller farms in this area that also support the industry. The program is wonderful for agriculture, and it’s helping to keep land in farming.”


McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds offers two tours of the farm daily during track season, except on Tuesday. The first tour starts at 8:30 AM; the second is at 10:30 AM. $5 adults, $3 children, children under 5 free. Proceeds to benefit the Grayson Jockey Club Research Foundation. The farm is at 180 Fitch Road; Fitch Road intersects Route 9P at the northeast end of Saratoga Lake.

This Week in Saratoga

Friday, Aug. 15

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 8:15 PM: The Philadelphia Orchestra with conductor Charles Dutoit and pianist Boris Berezovsky will perform works by Borodin, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. $56-$14.50. 587-3330.

Saturday, Aug. 16

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 8:15 PM: The Philadelphia Orchestra with conductor Charles Dutoit and violinist Nikolaj Znaider present A Tchaikovsky Spectacular. $56-$14.50. 587-3330.

Sunday, aug. 17

Alsop Hall, Davidson Drive, Saratoga Springs. 3 PM: Warren Vache (trumpet) with the Carnegie String Quartet in a program called The Trumpet Man. $22. 584-4132.

Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs. 2:15 PM: Saratoga Chamber Music Festival with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, violinist-director Chantal Juillet and special guest violinist Nikolaj Znaider will perform works by Tchaikovsky, Glinka and Shostakovich. $32.50, $27.50.

Tuesday, aug. 19

Spa Little Theater, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Springs. 8:15 PM: Saratoga Chamber Music Festival with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, violinist-director Chantal Juillet and special guest pianist Martha Argerich will perform works by Bartok and Borodin. $32.50, $27.50. 584-6018.

Thursday, aug. 21

Choice of the Cross, Saratoga Arts Center, 320 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 7 PM: A reading of the screenplay by Tom Mercer and Terry Field relating the true story of the Pueblo Indian revolt in Spanish New Mexico. Free. 584-4132.

Saratoga Race Course

Open daily through Sept. 1, except Tuesdays.

Location Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, 584-6200.

Admission $3 grandstand, $8 clubhouse, children under 12 free: seats are $5 and $8, respectively.

Parking $7 per car at the main gate and $5 across Union Avenue at the Oklahoma Training Track.

Racing At least nine races a day; pari-mutuel wagering on every race.

First Race Post Time 1 PM (except Travers Day, Aug. 23, when it’s 12:30 PM).

Major Stakes Races The Sword Dancer Invitational (Aug. 9); Alabama Stakes (Aug. 16); Travers Stakes (Aug. 23); Hopeful Stakes (Aug. 30).

Promotional Item Giveaways Baseball Cap (Aug. 10); Wall clock (Aug. 17); T-shirt (Aug. 31).

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