- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003

BELMONT, N.Y. — It’s a good thing Funny Cide trainer Barclay Tagg once worked with steeplechase horses because the gelding will face numerous hurdles today in his bid to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.

Four stakes winners in the field, a possible wet track, an overzealous final workout and an endless stretch that could outlast his breeding are just some of Funny Cide’s challenges in the 135th Belmont Stakes. Throw in the pressure of more than 100,000 fans overflowing Belmont Park and the failures of eight straight Triple Crown seekers and Funny Cide’s chances of ending the quarter-century drought seem far slimmer than his even-money morning line.

Funny Cide ran the 10th-fastest Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness Stakes by its widest margin since the 1873 inaugural, but he hasn’t been widely anointed as racing’s next immortal because he benefited from two perfect trips and fields lacking several of his generation’s best because of injuries. Even the Belmont offers only five challengers in the smallest Triple Crown field since 1994.

But racing has long awaited its next superhorse after the “Decade of Champions” saw three Triple Crown winners, capped by Affirmed in 1978. War Emblem stumbled leaving the Belmont gate last year, becoming the eighth straight Derby-Preakness winner to fall short. Several were victimized by poor rides, some by bad luck and a few just weren’t worthy. The “Test of Champions” has yet to permit a phony to enter its elite, and Funny Cide still must prove worthy.

After all, Funny Cide’s credentials were spotty when he entered the Derby as a 12-1 long shot. He won three races last fall at Belmont Park, but the one-time $75,000 purchase didn’t overwhelm his fellow juveniles. After that, he lost the Louisiana Derby and Wood Memorial, the latter in a stretch duel with Empire Maker.

But Funny Cide dazzled 15 rivals in the Derby, repelling two challengers in the stretch for a 13/4-length victory over Empire Maker. His 2:01 over 1 miles tied the 10th-fastest time after a clean trip. Racegoers remained slightly skeptical in a Preakness devoid of major contenders as Funny Cide pulled away for a 93/4-length victory.

The Belmont, however, will be the truest test of class. The field of six means everyone should get a fair trip, unlike in the crowded Derby. Ten Most Wanted, Empire Maker, Dynever and Scrimshaw are a respectable field of stakes winners. The 1-mile race on the “Big Sandy” will tax Funny Cide’s pedigree, based more on sprinting than the longest U.S. major stakes race.

The wild card is Funny Cide’s blistering 0:574/5 one-mile workout Tuesday. Critics say it was too fast by three seconds and could drain the horse in the Belmont stretch. Advocates claim it proves Funny Cide’s readiness. Indeed, the gelding has gained nearly 30 pounds in five weeks, while some horses lose weight during the spring classics.

Funny Cide has the hometown edge, though. He’s stabled just a few hundred yards from the paddock and regularly trains over the track. That’s a big advantage, especially if the track is wet.

Jockey Jose Santos also seeks to become the first New York rider to seal the Triple Crown on his own track since Steve Cauthen rode Affirmed in 1978. Because the long distance often fools jockeys into pushing too early, knowledge of the Long Island oval is critical. Jockey Kent Desormeaux blew Real Quiet’s 1998 chances in a photo finish after his four-length lead in the stretch evaporated following a premature move. Of the eight failed Triple Crown seekers, only Jorge Velasquez aboard Pleasant Colony in 1981 was a New York regular.

“We have more advantages than any other horse because Funny Cide’s based over here,” Santos said. “I know the track very well. And we don’t have to go nowhere. The horse lives maybe a quarter of a mile away from the paddock, so I think it’s everything working in Funny Cide’s favor.”

Nonetheless, Empire Maker looms as a potential spoiler. Trainer Bobby Frankel wants to be “the villain.” The Derby runner-up was compromised in Louisville after bruising his hoof four days before the race. Frankel freshened Empire Maker the last five weeks to ready for the rematch, and jockey Jerry Bailey still believes Empire Maker is superior to Funny Cide.

“I think my horse is the best horse,” Bailey said. “I’m frustrated in the sense that I think had Empire Maker been on his game, it could have been a different story and probably would have been a different story at Churchill. I rode him as if I thought he was 100 percent, and he wasn’t. He got beat by a length and three-quarters, and I probably lost more lengths than that on both turns.”

Jack Knowlton, managing partner of Funny Cide’s ownership, scoffed at Bailey’s bravado.

“Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion,” he said. “They’ve won one [the Wood Memorial], we’ve won one, and we’re looking forward to the Belmont. … I don’t think by any stretch it’s going to be a two-horse race.”

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