ELMONT, N.Y. — Funny Cide is 1 miles from immortality.
The 3-year-old gelding needs to cover that distance faster than five other horses in the 135th Belmont Stakes today to become the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years and the 12th ever.
More than 100,000 fans are expected at Belmont Park in hopes of witnessing Funny Cide become the first gelding to win the Triple Crown. Eight million TV viewers nationwide are expected to watch the 6:38 p.m. race, the latest Triple Crown start ever. The race was pushed back 30 minutes to accommodate an Arena Football League telecast on NBC.
If Funny Cide passes the “Test of Champions” — the last eight horses that came to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown failed that test — he will become one of the most unlikely champions in equine history. Funny Cide’s story is a long-shot tale of a bargain-basement horse purchased by blue-collar owners who prefer school buses to limousines.
Funny Cide was bought by a group of high school buddies who agreed to pool their money during a holiday cookout. Their stable has beaten the colors worn by Arab sheiks, billionaire industrialists and Kentucky breeders. Perhaps Barclay Tagg, a former steeplechase rider who has spent more than 30 years training horses in Maryland, can join the elite. And maybe Chilean jockey Jose Santos, who was falsely accused of cheating in the Kentucky Derby last month, can gain absolution.
Renowned trainer D. Wayne Lukas joked that this story has the makings of a movie. Racing leaders are ecstatic about the possibility of a marketable Triple Crown winner on the eve of the forthcoming movie “Seabiscuit,” based on the recent best-seller by Washington, D.C., author Laura Hillenbrand. National Thoroughbred Racing Association President Tim Smith called it the “perfect storm of marketing.”
“It’s a fantastic coincidence to have Funny Cide and the ‘Seabiscuit’ movie come in the same year,” Miss Hillenbrand said in an e-mail interview. “In the 1930s, America fell in love with Seabiscuit because they could identify with, and draw inspiration from, the rags-to-riches arc of his career and those of his handlers. In 2003, as a major motion picture about the horse is about to be released, along comes Funny Cide, a New York-bred gelding owned by a bunch of high school buddies who show up at the track in a school bus, wearing Kmart jackets. Funny Cide is a working-class hero whose essential story bears more than a passing resemblance to Seabiscuit’s. The convergence of these two stories, one historical and one modern-day, could do wonders for racing.”
Such synergy permits some race-goers to believe that the “gods of racing” will allow the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed held off Alydar in all three races in 1978.
Funny Cide was a virtual unknown before he won the Kentucky Derby on May5. That was followed by a brief scandal about since-disproved accusations that jockey Santos used an illegal electrical device in the stretch. Funny Cide then proved that the Derby wasn’t a fluke by scoring the biggest Preakness Stakes victory since the inaugural running in 1873.
“I don’t know about destiny,” said Penny Chenery, owner of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, “but it certainly is time in my mind, and I think in the fans’ minds, [for a Triple Crown winner]. We just need to get this process going again, and I think Funny Cide is a great candidate.”
Six buddies from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., have become the latest “Slew Crew” — the group that owned 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew — with national networks and magazines highlighting the small-town heroes. Not much has happened in the town of 1,300 since it beat back the British from the local shipyard during the War of 1812. The owners, who now number 10, rode a school bus to the Derby and need four yellow stretch limos to accommodate friends and neighbors today.
A Belmont victory means $5.8million to the owners, including a $5million bonus for sweeping the Triple Crown. Funny Cide earned $1.8million combined for his Derby and Preakness victories.
“This is a ‘come on, everybody, you can get in the game, too,’ kind of a story,” Miss Chenery said. “And I think that can have a great deal of influence on the public.”
Funny Cide would have been worth more than $50million as a stallion if he won the Triple Crown. However, he was gelded after being born with one undescended testicle.
“I’m all for geldings. Probably 98 percent of [colts] should be,” Tagg said. “I just think they focus better. They make a better racehorse. I don’t think it takes any of the fire out of them or anything else.”
Racing will benefit if Funny Cide keeps running. A lucrative stud income is not a possibility for Funny Cide, so he can join John Henry, Forego and Dr.Fager as dominant geldings who won Horse of the Year as older runners.
“If he could win the Triple Crown and he stays sound for the next two or three years, he could have tremendous impact on our sport,” said Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen. “Racing is like any other sporting industry: It needs stars. We need a star like him, big time.”
Fans are paying Funny Cide the biggest compliment by calling the chestnut “Big Red,” the nickname for legendary Man ‘o War and Secretariat. FunnyCide.com sells buttons and shirts. The Belmont crowd, sprinkled with celebrities, such as director Steven Spielberg, actress Goldie Hawn and television judge Judy Shireland, is expected to back the hometown horse, which is regularly stabled just a few hundred yards from the paddock. Funny Cide is 3-0 at the Long Island track, and Gotham racing fans will certainly make him an overwhelming favorite.
But the pressure will be staggering. Since 1979, four jockeys have ridden poorly and compromised their colts’ chances at the Crown. Santos has an edge. He is the first rider since Cauthen in 1978 with a chance to seal the Triple Crown on his home track.
But it won’t be a sure thing despite the smallest Belmont field — six — since 1994. Derby favorite Empire Maker skipped the Preakness after he finished second in Louisville and is refreshed.
“If he’s able to beat all these fresh horses coming in here, he’ll be as deserving a winner as there ever was,” Cauthen said.