- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

ELMONT, N.Y. — The only legend in horse racing this summer will be on the silver screen. Seabiscuit won’t have to share top billing with Funny Cide.

The horse that was burdened with carrying the hopes of the sport came up short yesterday, the ninth straight time a horse has won two-thirds of the famed Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness — only to lose the Belmont Stakes, as Funny Cide finished third behind winner Empire Maker and the second-place horse, Ten Most Wanted.

What was most wanted by the more than 100,000 fans braving the rain yesterday at Belmont Park and horse racing fans all around the country — at least those who didn’t bet on Empire Maker — was for Funny Cide to triumph. He was a Hollywood story come to life, an unheralded New York horse owned by a bunch of high school buddies and ridden by a jockey who overcome drug addiction and had been falsely accused of using an electronic device to help his horse win the Kentucky Derby.

This was supposed to be horse racing’s savior, leading the sport back to a place of prominence on the American sports scene, although that seemed to be a stretch to me. What will be the sport’s savior are the one-armed bandits that are now at tracks in Delaware and West Virginia and soon to be in Pennsylvania and New York and, yes, eventually Maryland.

A Triple Crown winner, though, along with the buzz that the film “Seabiscuit” is expected to create, would have at least gotten people talking about something other than Sammy Sosa’s corked bats. And it was a goose bump moment when they loaded the horses into the starting gate yesterday.

But the excitement faded as they went into the last turn at the mile and a half track, when Empire Maker made his move on Funny Cide, who had led throughout much of the race before then, and it was evident that Empire Maker was not going to be caught again by Funny Cide. Maybe by Ten Most Wanted, almost, but not Funny Cide.

“We finished third,” jockey Jose Santos said. “We tried our best. I hope we don’t have to wait another 25 years.”

Santos was referring to the last time a horse won the Triple Crown. Affirmed remains as the last horse to win all three races, and that was in 1978. Maybe thoroughbred racing should change it from the Triple Crown to the Double Medallion or something like that. If it only took two races to save horse racing, heck, War Emblem would have done it last year, or Charismatic three years before that, or Real Quiet the year before that, or Silver Charm the year before that.

A horse that can win these three races might be as rare as a 100-year flood — which they had yesterday at Belmont Park as the rain poured down on this racing palace nearly all day and very heavy at times.

You could see the earth changing as the day went on. Early in the day, the track was declared “good” and the turf was “yielding.” As the skies opened and a deluge came down, it changed to the track being “sloppy” and the turf being “soft.” By the time the Belmont Stakes — the 11th race of the day — came off, the rain had lightened up to a drizzle, but the track remained “sloppy” and the turf remained “soft.”

They might as well have described it as “submerged” and “soup.”

You would have thought that Funny Cide would have the edge here. He had been three for three at this track, and his trainer, Barclay Tagg, had been working him out here in the rain that has fallen nearly every day recently — 10 inches in the last 10 days. But Tagg said the horse was not prepared for the slop that they ran on yesterday — at least not without a wet suit.

“He hasn’t run in anything like this,” Tagg said. “This is the first time he had to run in mud like this.”

Asked if he would have done anything different yesterday, Santos said, “Yeah, I would keep Mother Nature away.” Asked if he believed the condition of the track affected his horse, Santos answered, “He couldn’t handle it.”

It may or may not have affected the outcome, but it sure had an effect on the scene. It was a like some sort of dark Hollywood set around the track, with the rain falling and creating a mist, coupled with the thousands of people smoking on every piece of real estate they could find outside of the clubhouse and grandstand. This is the city where Michael Bloomberg — “Mayor Annoying” (not taking anything away from Willie Don, the former mayor of Baltimore, who was known as Mayor Annoyed) — has declared smoking off limits inside all public places, so it was as if there was a mine fire under the track, with all the smoke rising into the air.

The quest for the Triple Crown may have gone up in smoke as well, but that shouldn’t diminish the story of Funny Cide. It doesn’t enhance it, but it is still a winner’s tale, a horse — a gelding, no less — that was bought for $75,000 by a group that included six guys who grew up together in Sacketts Harbor, N.Y., and wound up earning millions and owning the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

After the controversy that rocked the sport with the Pick-Six Breeders Cup betting scandal in November, Funny Cide brought some joy back into thoroughbred racing. Empire Maker may have won a race yesterday, but that was all it was, despite trainer Bobby Frankel’s gloating.

“I am not disappointed by this horse,” Santos said of Funny Cide. “He had a great run.”

So did horse racing — perhaps the last great run before the triple crown people care about most at the track are the ones that appear across their slot machines.

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