News that the “Gutsy Gelding” had passed away brought about a myriad of emotions in Jose (Joe) Santos, Jr.

It was less than a week ago when Santos, at the wheel and on his way from Louisville to Saratoga, considered making a detour to Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions in Lexington to see Funny Cide, the 2003 Kentucky and Preakness Stakes winner ridden to victory by his father, hall of fame jockey Jose Santos.

“It was tough hearing the news that he had died,” recalled Santos, Jr. “I was heading back to New York, and I thought to myself, ‘I should pop in and see him real quick.’ I had just seen him a month before and he looked great. He couldn’t have looked any better. So, I thought I’ll see when I come back that way. I wasn’t really worried about anything and then I got the word. It was gutting.”

News of Funny Cide’s death at 23, due to colic, prompted recollections of the underdog horse’s rise to Thoroughbred glory, one cut from the pages of a Hollywood script.

How the Santos family became connected to the chestnut son of Distorted Humor is a story itself.

“My dad, he actually got pretty lucky getting on him. Two weeks before Funny Cide’s debut, the jockey who was supposed to be riding him missed a morning work, and the connections called my dad’s agent to see if he was free. My dad went there, got on him and called me afterwards. He said, ‘I just found my Derby horse.’ He knew right from the jump. I’m sure Barclay [trainer, Tagg] would have said the same thing. We were all excited about him from the beginning.”

And for good reason.

Funny Cide went undefeated in three starts as a 2-year-old. Although winless in his first three starts the following year, the final race was a gutsy half-length loss to eventual Kentucky Derby favorite Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

“We were really excited about him the whole way through, including his 2-year-old campaign. He didn’t win any races leading up to the start of the Triple Crown, but he always ran well in his preps, and we were super excited heading into the Kentucky Derby.”

The man who had guided him to that point was confident this was the horse to deliver him his elusive Kentucky Derby win.

“It was an unforgettable day, that’s for sure, when my dad and Funny Cide won the Derby. I’ll never forget when my dad stepped out of the car, he looked back at me and said, “I’m going to win the Kentucky Derby today.’ I was young at the time, but I never forgot the way he looked at me and said those words.”

Prophetic words, as it would turn out.

Funny Cide bested favored Empire Maker by 1 ½ lengths, and with the win put his name in the record books as the first New York-bred horse to win the Derby. In the Preakness, Funny Cide romped to a nearly 10-length victory in the Preakness, to find himself one race away from sweeping all three races in the series.

On a rainy day at Belmont in front of over 101,000 boisterous fans, Funny Cide’s bid for racing history was foiled by Empire Maker, with the former finishing third, five lengths in arrears of the winner.

Named champion 3-year-old male of 2003, Funny Cide went on to win 11 of 38 starts and $3,529,412 in career earnings for his New York-based Sackatoga Stable, a group of 10 friends who earned their own notoriety because its members would travel in a school bus to watch their horse race wherever he competed.

At the time of Funny Cide’s retirement, he was the highest-earning New York-bred in history.

“He was definitely a fan favorite, the whole New York-bred story and the great ownership group,” said Santos, Jr. “It was the whole underdog story, the last horse you would think could rise up and achieve that kind of greatness. He was a fan favorite because he kept running after his big 3-year-old year. A lot of horses will retire early, but he kept fighting the fight all the way through his last start. He’s a special horse. It really was a fairytale story. Barclay had never competed in a Derby and my dad hadn’t been in the Derby since Lemon Drop Kid in 1999, so this horse really brought them and everyone together.”

Even after his final start, Funny Cide remained a huge draw at Kentucky Horse Park, where he had resided since 2008 following his retirement the year before.

For Santos, Jr., who has carved out a highly successful career as a jockey agent, the horse who captured the attention of the racing world and beyond will continue to be a fixture in his life.

“He was the horse who solidified my dad getting into the hall of fame. He had a great career all around him, but up until then, he hadn’t won a Derby or a Preakness. It was that difference maker for him.”

It’s one of many reasons why watching highlights of Funny Cide’s magical run 20 years ago always evokes an emotional response from the now 29-year-old Santos, Jr.

With the passing of the “Gutsy Gelding,” those times are even more profound.

“I catch myself watching the replays and the broadcasts a lot. It’s something I’ll never forget, and I’ll never stop watching. I choke up watching the Derby every single time. And the Preakness meant so much. It just holds a little more weight now. I haven’t forgotten any of those moments. I remember it all, every bit of it. I know I always will.”