When I think back on that early May morning phone conversation five years ago, I am still surprised I got through so easily. At the time, I was writing a weekly column for a small Connecticut newspaper. But it was May—the time for rebirth and hope. And an unheralded New York-bred gelding, whose co-owner lived in my state, was giving hope for the possibility of a Triple Crown.
“I’ve got a business to run,” Dave Mahan told me when I expressed surprise that he answered the phone. His voice was hoarse from cheering Funny Cide to a 9 3⁄4-length victory two days earlier in the Preakness (gr. I). Now he had a few weeks’ breathing room to get back to the stuffed mushrooms and prime rib he served up regularly at the weddings he hosted at his banquet facility, Mahan’s Lakeview, in the western hills of Connecticut. His own celebration was on hold.
Mahan, a tall, robust fellow whose healthy head of red hair belied his age, died Jan. 15 at 61 after fighting brain cancer for years. He was the second of Funny Cide’s principal owners to pass away since the horse captivated a nation in 2003. In April 2007, Gus Williams, the flamboyant man-child who came to the races in a plaid jacket and yellow pants, died at 81, leaving Jack Knowlton as the remaining owner of the original Sackatoga triumvirate.
I was even more surprised when Mahan invited me to his facility that afternoon for an interview. It was hard to reach—the country roads were narrow and the hairpin turns had to be carefully negotiated. But finally, after about two hours, Mahan’s 20-acre lush green spread unfolded before me, the curving configuration of wide walkways reminiscent of a racetrack. His airy headquarters at the rear of one of the function buildings put me in mind of a trainer’s office, with more pictures of racehorses than anything connected to weddings. Mahan got into the catering business in the early 1990s when he answered “why not” to his father’s suggestion that he buy a similar facility in a nearby town. One August afternoon a few years later, when he and Williams were partying and betting horses at the Carousel Bar at Saratoga, he said “why not” again when Knowlton asked him if he wanted to be part of a new stable. The stable had modest success, but a $62,000 sale of a hard-knocking mare, appropriately named Bail Money, bailed Sackatoga out and supplied enough cash for them to spend $75,000 to buy Funny Cide.
“See that?” Mahan said to me as he pointed to a fieldstone wall that runs across the front of his property. “Funny built that wall. See that?” His hand swept across his land to a garden. “Funny built that.”
Back in Mahan’s office, the phone was going nuts as people he knew and some he didn’t hit him up for tickets to the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
His family and the rest of the Sackatoga bunch would pull their yellow school bus into a parking lot of Rolls-Royces and Cadillacs (a Mahan idea: he was in charge of the social stuff, of course) and settle in for an afternoon of joy—regardless of the outcome.
Because Saturday is the busiest day in the wedding business, Mahan’s staff was never able to attend the races. They were too busy making sure the real celebrations went off without a hitch for the crowds of well-dressed guests oblivious to the bigger shows on stages in Louisville, Ky., Baltimore, Md., and Elmont, N.Y. When they could, cooks and waiters snuck peeks at a television set tucked away in Mahan’s office.
But history was not to be made June 7, 2003, as Funny Cide finished third, five lengths behind Empire Maker on a sloppy track. That summer the three principals were back at their usual spots at the Carousel Bar. Knowlton bought me a glass of Funny Cide beer, and my car still bore its Funny Cide bumper sticker.
Hopefully, as I write this, the caterer who was not afraid to take chances is in greener pastures. We know Funny Cide is, having entered the Hall of Champions at the Kentucky Horse Park in December to live out his life among adoring fans.
At Mahan’s Lakeview, the nuptials will continue being celebrated, but, I suspect, they won’t have the fervor of the post-Belmont Stakes party when 300 friends and family gathered at a hotel near JFK Airport and partied as if they had just won the Triple Crown.
Dave Mahan set up the buffet.
Terese Karmel is a Connecticut journalist and college professor