Funny Cide’s Dave Mahan

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Photo by stocknshares/iStockphoto
Photo by stocknshares/iStockphoto

First and foremost — our condolences to Dave Mahan’s friends and family. You have our deepest sympathies.

So, if you’ll beg our pardon, we have a little matter to take up with Connecticut’s media, who missed rather big local story a few years ago.

In early spring 2003, Dave Mahan seemed to be the invisible man, as far as his local media was concerned. Then, word got out that he had been part of  one of the big national “feel-good” stories of that year.

After the fact. When they could have been covering that story all along.

On the day after the Kentucky Derby, Connecticut residents found out that they’d had a connection in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. A Watertown caterer  owned a share of Funny Cide, the gelding who’d just won the Derby.

But few in Connecticut knew prior to the Derby that a Connecticut man had a connection to a Derby horse.

How did this happen? And why am I so cranked up about it?

Because Mahan seems to be a bigger local story in death than he was when Funny Cide was poised to enter the Kentucky Derby. Just getting there is a major accomplishment in itself.

Local news has played catch-up ever since.

Lori Riley of The Hartford Courant wrote a nice feature story about Mahan’s memories of those heady glory days — back when Funny had won the Derby and then The Preakness and then became the red-hot center of a racing’s buzz as a contender for the Triple Crown.

Mahan owned about 20 per cent interest in Funny Cide along with that merry band of buddies and school bus riders, Sackatoga Stable.

(Here’s a link with a poster that showed the bus, a symbol of Funny’s owners’ humble beginnings. To allow all of the Sackatoga shareholders to ride together to Churchill Downs, they rented a yellow school bus.)

Back in 2003, Funny Cide was famous as “the New York horse.” Only on the Sunday newscasts, did local Connecticut news finally mention that a Connecticut man owned an interest in the most famous racehorse of the day.

An archive search of The Hartford Courant shows that no story ran about Mahan’s connection in 2003. But The Courant paid attention when Mahan passed away.

Why did they miss such a big story, a Connecticut man at the Kentucky Derby?

Connecticut is the nexus of Yankee Mania and Red Sox Nation. Team sports here are king.

When I lived in Lexington, Kentucky, before moving here in 1979, the media there was full of racing. News from one of the hometown’s strongest industries could be found on the front page, the sports page, the lifestyle page and the business page.

I then moved to Connecticut to find that racing had not just taken a back seat but was hitchhiking down the side streets. The papers only carried race results, if at all, in the back of the sports section. Even major races.

Had Mahan had some connection to Major League Baseball or pro football, not only would residents have known in advance of the big event, a camera crew would have probably followed him onto that yellow school bus.

The hunt for the local angle

I’ve worked in both print and broadcast journalism. A big national story is basically just a clip from the wire services and a topic of conversation in the newsroom until a local angle is found.

Then, excitement pulses through the staff. The vibe is distinct — now we have a piece of the action. Strategies are formed. Management shows interest. The game’s a-foot. Unless there’s a death or a structure fire, guess what the new lead story is?

Well, y’all missed the ball on this one. The Watertown caterer’s connection to Funny Cide slipped past your radar.

Connecticut could have cheered on Funny Cide, just like New Yorkers did.

Granted, most major and racing media was focused on the favorite that year, Empire Maker.

But it’s not every year that a Connecticut man is part of the Run for the Roses. And I think local media could have been there a bit earlier in Derby Week.

The Kentucky Derby is akin to the Super Bowl

Despite the importance among racing people of the Breeder’s Cup, the Kentucky Derby is still the big dawg.

Of all the tens of thousands of 2-year-olds running that year, only about 20 qualify to start in the Kentucky Derby. Getting there is an accomplishment in itself.

So, you don’t have to be in Kentucky on the first Saturday in May to understand the magnitude of the win.

Because the winner of the Kentucky Derby, despite the proliferation of richer races, still makes big news. “CBS Sunday Morning” always announces the name of the winner over footage of the stretch run during its news segment.

The Derby is the one race that everyone even peripherally connected to thoroughbred racing dreams winning. It’s the one where movie stars go to see and be seen. It’s an annual rite of spring.

Dave Mahan, Watertown caterer, should have been known about long before he exulted in that winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.

Again, our deepest sympathies to Mr. Mahan’s loved ones. The yellow school bus won’t be the same.

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