- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

It was fun while it lasted, but it didn’t last long.

A year after Funny Cide nearly won the Triple Crown, the gelding returns to Baltimore for the $500,000 Pimlico Special on Friday. Funny Cide is without a major victory since the Preakness Stakes, and after five losses and one stakes victory, railbirds are wondering if the sport’s biggest name in a quarter century was merely more lucky than good last spring.

Racing’s version of William Hung epitomized the American dream that anyone — even a gelding like Funny Cide — can become rich and famous. A long shot owned by a group of middle-class buddies beat the high-priced equines of Arab sheiks and American billionaires in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

“Last year, people thought it was pretty neat that someone like us can win a Derby and Preakness,” said managing partner Jack Knowlton. “There were so many small owners who were encouraged by us.”

Along with the successful “Seabiscuit” movie, racing reached its highest pinnacle since Affirmed’s 1978 Triple Crown sweep. Funny Cide’s success inspired a Web site, book, T-shirts, hats, bobbleheads, keychains and even a song and a beer. Major publications and television shows featured him while more than 100,000 jammed Belmont Park on a miserable rainy day hoping to witness history in the Belmont Stakes. Many arrived at the finish line more than nine hours early for a prime vantage point they refused to yield despite the unending downpour.

But Funny Cide has regularly disappointed since the Preakness. The Triple Crown bid was finished before the final Belmont turn. Funny Cide followed with a third in the Haskell Stakes before an illness scrapped a highly-anticipated summer showdown with Empire Maker at Saratoga. He was a dismal ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

This year hasn’t been much better. There was a gimmee victory at Gulfstream Park in a modest allowance race on Jan.10 — think Roger Clemens facing high schoolers. Funny Cide then finished third in two more major stakes before finally scoring in the Excelsior Handicap on April3.

Now Funny Cide will learn if he can remain in the marquee stakes races. The 4-year-old is the early 2-1 favorite in a talented Pimlico Special field of seven. Beating stakes-winners Southern Image, Evening Attire and Dynever would restore his glory, but another poor outing would add to Funny Cide’s descent. The gelding’s dislike of extreme heat on an expected hot afternoon doesn’t help his chances.

“I look at this as a key race in his career,” Knowlton said. “He’s either going to be in … the next handful [behind Medaglia d’Oro] or fall out of it.”

The Preakness eve crowd will still line the Baltimore track, though. Funny Cide’s return to New York in the Excelsior was called the biggest happening at Aqueduct since Pope John Paul’s visit in the 1980s. Funny Cide’s owners may even return to their school bus roots after failing to locate an available motor coach for the 60-member following.

“It’s exciting to relive last year’s Preakness,” Knowlton said. “It’s incredible how many Funny Cide fans are there. Wherever we go there’s a lot of buzz about Funny Cide. We get e-mails constantly. There’s about 2,000 people in the fan club. He’s the people’s horse.”

Sackatoga Stable has three 2-year-olds thanks to Funny Cide’s $2.3 million earnings. The goal is to campaign him for a few more years to fill racing’s shortage of marquee older runners that are often retired to breeding sheds.

“We want him to run in nice races and win some and make purse money,” Knowlton said. “We’re not going to be running him in claiming races. There are a lot of good New York-bred races. He’s given us no indication that his skills have diminished.”

Note — This could be the final Special if slot machines aren’t legalized in Maryland. The current funding has the Special’s purse paid from the horsemen’s account only if slots are approved, so track ownership is covering the race this year. Maryland Jockey Club president Joe De Francis denied the race wouldn’t continue, but conceded the track couldn’t continuing funding it. The Special was revived in 1988 after a 30-year absence and consistently has drawn many of the nation’s top older horses.

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