- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

Now, it gets serious for Funny Cide.

The improbable Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes champion can join racing’s immortals with a victory in the 135th Belmont Stakes. A victory would make him the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown.

To do so, Funny Cide first must beat a tough field at Belmont Park on June7 which includes several prominent — and fresh — rivals he did not face in the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday.

Empire Maker and Atswhatimtalknbout lost to Funny Cide at the Kentucky Derby, finishing second and fourth, respectively. However, those horses and stakes-winner Dynever likely would have been favored ahead of Funny Cide in the Preakness had they run.

Their owners chose to skip the second leg of the Triple Crown and Funny Cide went on to win the Preakness by the biggest margin in 130 years. Funny Cide will face all three in the Belmont.

Funny Cide’s wide margin of victory at Pimlico brought an air of confidence to trainer Barclay Tagg.

“To tell you the truth, I’m not worried about any of ‘em,” he said yesterday. “I think they have to beat this horse now. I don’t think he has to beat them. There’s going to be some fresh faces and our horse will have gone through a pretty good campaign by then, so that’s a concern.

“But hopefully he’ll come out of this well, and he seems to handle it all well. As long as he handles everything like he did the last few weeks I can’t see any problem with it.”

A victory in the Belmont would make Funny Cide the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.

The last eight horses that entered the Belmont with a shot at the Triple Crown lost, most recently War Emblem last year. Several of those eight were even greater long shots than Funny Cide, the gelding who took the Derby as a 12-1 underdog and won the Preakness as a 19-10 favorite.

Funny Cide silenced skeptics Saturday with an overpowering performance and a 93/4-lengths victory that was the largest at the Preakness since Survivor won the inaugural race by 10 in 1873. The gelding benefited from a clean trip in the Derby, but at Pimlico he pulled away from the field powerfully even though jockey Jose Santos used the whip only twice in the stretch.

Funny Cide’s victories are another example of a super horse that seemingly emerged from nowhere.

Funny Cide won three minor races at Belmont Park last year, but he seemed to be outmatched in the Triple Crown prep races. He finished fifth in the Holy Bull Stakes on Jan.18, third in the Louisiana Derby on March9 and second in the Wood Memorial on April12.

Tagg refused to skip the Derby, even though he had options that might have seemed to make more sense at the time, such as running Funny Cide in lesser stakes races. However, the horse’s owners are a group of high school friends of average means who knew this likely was their only chance to run in the Derby. So, Tagg and Funny Cide went to Louisville, Ky., as a little-known long shot who was backed by just 8percent of the Derby bettors.

His 13/4-lengths Derby victory was a sharp effort, especially when he held off favorite Empire Maker in the stretch.

But racing has seen Derby flukes before, and lingering doubts left Funny Cide a lukewarm favorite (19-10) in the Preakness. Only third-place Derby finisher Peace Rules (3-1) was given a serious chance in the 10-horse field at Pimlico, but he was spent by the stretch. Funny Cide wasn’t challenged in the final quarter-mile.

Now Tagg senses greatness for the horse his owners purchased for only $75,000 as a yearling. Arab sheiks and Kentucky blueblood breeders pay millions of dollars for classic contenders, but this modest horse from a meager stable is the hottest thing in racing since Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977 with his “Slew Crew” followers in tow.

“You always hope for a [Triple Crown horse], but you don’t expect that,” Tagg said. “You have to have all the luck and somebody else has to have some bad luck along the line to have it all work out right. … I thought he was an outstanding horse after his first race. He just had a quality about him. I felt early on he might be this caliber of horse.”

But racegoers hoping for a Triple Crown champion have been teased before. The last eight horses to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown have failed the “Test of Champions,” the daunting 1-mile run at Belmont Park.

Few of those faced a final leg as competitive as the one that awaits Funny Cide on the first Saturday in June.

Empire Maker won the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial, but a week of hoof problems before the Derby seemed to keep him from making a move during the stretch at the Derby.

Atswhatimtalknbout hasn’t won a stakes race, but his late, strong move from 10th to fourth in the Derby, after having been caught in heavy traffic, probably was impressive enough to make him the third choice at the Belmont.

Ten Most Wanted suffered a herniated disc in his back when he was hit by Scrimshaw leaving the starting gate at the Derby. He finished a lackluster ninth in the race, but the winner of the Illnois Derby is healthy again.

Dynever is a late comer to the Triple Crown race; he made his first start on Feb.8. However, his three straight victories, capped by a win in the Lone Star Derby, led some to believe he is the best 3-year-old colt.

Outta Here, Most Feared and Pretence are also expected to run at Belmont Park. Most Feared, after a promising 2-year-old season, finished second in the Lone Star. Outta Here finished seventh in the Derby after passing seven rivals in the final quarter mile. Pretence won three straight British stakes.

Meanwhile, Schrimshaw, who finished third at the Preakness, is a probable entrant at the Belmont, and runner-up Midway Road and ninth-place finisher Ten Cents a Shine are possible.

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