A year removed from winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Funny Cide stepped onto the track at Saratoga Race Course – a few miles from where he was foaled at McMahon Thoroughbreds – and brought a crowd. Free pint glasses helped push the attendance figure to a near-record 70,175, but most would have come to see the local star anyway and sent him off at even money in the 2004 Saratoga Breeders’ Cup Handicap.

Funny Cide was supposed to win, receive a thundering ovation and head back to the barn while his fans celebrated by chugging Funny Cide beer out of all those free pint glasses.

Nobody told Evening Attire.

The gray 6-year-old ran past Funny Cide in the stretch and won by 5 lengths, adding another chapter to a career full of memorable moments at Saratoga and beyond.

Memories of that race and more came back this week with the news of Evening Attire’s death at age 21. He’d been retired for 10 years at Akindale Thoroughbred Rescue – something of an honorary host at the Pawling, N.Y. farm. He didn’t need to be rescued, but he did his part to help other horses who did.

Evening Attire made a dozen starts at the Spa. He won five times, finished third another five times and fourth once. His only bad race came in the 2000 Hopeful, when he was seventh.

“He loved Saratoga,” said Pat Kelly, Evening Attire’s trainer for most of the horse’s 69 starts. “I know people say that about horses, but he did. He was a two-turn, true distance horse. Everybody was there to see Funny Cide that day, but Attire was pretty popular too. It felt like he was the people’s horse.”

Indeed. Somehow, Evening Attire developed a reputation as an underdog or an overachiever – despite winning nine graded stakes and earning just shy of $3 million. He wasn’t a New York-bred, but it felt like he was thanks to 59 starts in the Empire State. Along with those 12 Saratoga starts, he made 25 trips to the post at Aqueduct – winning eight.

Owned and bred by Kelly’s father T.J. and long-time friend Joe Grant, Evening Attire touched just about every branch of the Kelly family. Retired Hall of Fame trainer T.J. and son Larry did some of the early prep work; another son Tim (now NYRA’s clerk of scales) was the first trainer; then Pat (whose assistant was his son Ken) took over.

“He was just an old-school, hard-knocking, hard-trying all his life horse that came at a great time for our whole family,” said Pat. “He made Pop come to Saratoga every summer and it was amazing to see how much it rejuvenated him and kept him going. Mr. Grant loved the horse and Pop and he went back a long way together. Just a wonderful horse to be around.”

T.J. Kelly died in 2013 at age 93. He trained champion Plugged Nickle and stars such as Droll Role, Pet Bully, Globemaster and Topsider. Evening Attire was a fitting epilogue to one of the great careers in racing.

The son of Black Tie Affair and the Our Native mare Concolour made his debut as a 2-year-old at Belmont Park in July 2000. Three weeks later, he won a Saratoga maiden and then couldn’t keep up with the speedsters in the Grade 1 Hopeful as Yonaguska and City Zip battled to a dead heat with Macho Uno third. Trained by Tim Kelly that first season, Evening Attire ended 2000 with back-to-back seconds at Belmont and moved to Pat’s care the next year after surgery to remove a small chip in a knee and being gelded. The 3-year-old debut didn’t come until August and started with three consecutive losses – one on the turf. In late October, the Grade 3 Discovery Handicap was struggling for entries thanks to the presence of Street Cry and Evening Attire was entered on something of a whim.

He pulled a 66-1 upset, winning by a length over Street Cry, added the Grade 3 Queens County against older horses in December and kept the streak going with a win in the Grade 3 Aqueduct Handicap in January.

“I tried to make him a grass horse, that’s how much I knew,” Pat said with a laugh this week. “They were trying to fill the Discovery for E Dubai and I just said I’d take a shot. He jumps up and wins the thing.”

The ride just got better. Evening Attire’s 2002 season finished with five wins and $1.3 million in earnings. The wins included the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Grade 2 Saratoga Breeders’ Cup and the Grade 3 Red Smith (off the turf). Evening Attire finished fourth behind Volponi in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Arlington.

“I thought he had a good chance, but it rained a little bit that week and the track was sticky or something,” said Pat. “He came running late, it just was not an ideal track for him. We went to California the next year for the Breeders’ Cup and that was the year of the fires and things. It just didn’t work out.”

Evening Attire routinely started slowly, giving up lengths early and trying to claw them back late. Pat Kelly blamed some early bumps at the gate, several starts with an undescended testicle and maybe just the horse’s preference.

“Robbie Davis used to come back and tell Pop, ‘T.J., this horse is pinching behind,’ ” Pat said. “His whole career, he hesitated at the gate. He was a big kind of horse and it always took him awhile to get going. He’d always give them a head start, and then he’d come running.”

It didn’t always work, as he finished second 16 times (to go with 15 wins). He was disqualified from a win (and placed second) in the 2003 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, got moved up to second from third when roughed up in the 2004 John B. Campbell at Laurel. Those two defeats were part of six consecutive runner-up placings in 2003 and 2004. The Kentucky-bred ran in races with classic old names – Discovery, Excelsior, Massachusetts Handicap, Stymie, Knickerbocker, Stuyvesant, Suburban, Brooklyn, Whitney and even Hawthorne’s National Jockey Club.

Pat Kelly called the 2002 Jockey Club Gold Cup his favorite win, probably for the significance as a Grade 1 and a springboard to the Breeders’ Cup. The old race, once contested at 2 miles, had been shortened to 1 1/4 miles by then but carried no less importance. First run in 1919, the race lists Man o’ War, Gallant Fox, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Citation, Nashua and Kelso among its prior winners. Evening Attire might not fit with those legends, but they would have given him a hat tip for the effort.

“It was just an unbelievable day that day, he blew them away,” said Pat Kelly of a hard-charging win over Lido Palace and Harlan’s Holiday among others. “It was all him. He had a great heart, a great mind, a great will. He loved what he did.”

Evening Attire raced for parts of nine years, starting at least five times in each, but Kelly managed a few breaks with Glenn Loatman in Pennsylvania. The respites typically didn’t last long, and Evening Attire returned to test exercside rider Danny Vogt’s muscles.

“He’d go there for a month or two and Glenn would call me up after 30 days and say, ‘This horse is bored,” said Pat Kelly. “He loved to train, loved to run. People would ask why did he keep going so long. Because he was pulling Danny’s arms off every morning.”

Evening Attire made six starts as a 10-year-old in 2008, converting to a distance specialist with a second in the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn in June and a win in the Greenwood Cup at the same distance in July. The new Breeders’ Cup Marathon was the goal that fall, but a suspensory injury ended a stellar career.

“He won his last start,” said Pat Kelly of the Greenwood at Parx. “That wasn’t the plan though. We were going to Monmouth to run in another mile-and-a-half race, but had to scratch and that was it. He was 10, he’d never had any kind of soft-tissue injury like that and his X-rays were so good for a horse of that age.”

But it was time.

Evening Attire spent the next 10 (plus) years at Akindale, the farm founded by John Hettinger and set aside as a 1,000-acre oasis for retired racehorses. They’ve numbered as high as 130 or so – including Evening Attire and his not-so-famous brother Tacticianor – and the farm recently embarked on a “Reinventing Racehorses” initiative that will focus on rehabilitation, retraining and adoption.

“It was a 10-year retirement, that doesn’t seem right because it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago,” said Kelly. “But he had a great life there. He enjoyed retirement. Mr. Hettinger had such foresight to start that thinking. He was way ahead of his time. We’re so proud of the things we do now as horsemen, but Mr. Hettinger is the guy who first talked about it.”

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Tod Marks Photo Slide Show of Evening Attire through the years. Click to open.

 

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For more on Akindale and Evening Attire's impact there, see Jan. 25 The Outside Rail column.