Sunday, June 1, 2003

Funny Cide goes for sweep

After Belmont, gelding to be one of 12 champs or 17 misses

The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Fatigue wiped out Alysheba and Silver Charm. An early move ended Real Quiet's try. Injury stopped Charismatic. A stumble at the start was War Emblem's downfall.

Who knows what awaits Funny Cide when he attempts to win the Triple Crown on Saturday in the Belmont Stakes? When it comes to trying to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, so much has gone wrong for so many that only 11 3-year-olds have done it.

Sixteen others won the first two legs but, for one reason or another, came up short in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, the longest and most grueling race of all.

"You need a great horse and good racing luck all the way," said Northern Kentuckian Steve Cauthen, who rode the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, in 1978. "You can't have any setbacks."

Funny Cide just might be that horse. A week away from his attempt to win the Belmont and become the first Triple Crown champion in a quarter-century, the chestnut gelding is healthy, hungry and ready to run on his home track for his upstate owners, Sackatoga Stable.

"If he's the same as he was going into the Derby and Preakness, nothing can beat him," said Robin Smullen, Funny Cide's assistant trainer and exercise rider. "But everything has to continue to fall into place."

So far, so good for Funny Cide, the first gelding and first New York-bred to go for the Triple Crown.

Unlike most Triple Crown contenders - even some of the winners - Funny Cide has shown no signs of wear and tear from the punishing grind of going in three races at three tracks at varying distances over five weeks.

With a quarter-mile to go in the '78 Belmont, Cauthen said Affirmed felt "fatigued," and in the winner's circle, "he was exhausted." Trainer Bob Baffert, a three-time Belmont loser with a Triple Crown at stake, said Silver Charm was sluggish before the Belmont and "out of gas" when beaten a head by Touch Gold in '97.

Since his second-place finish behind Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial on April 12, Funny Cide has gotten bigger and better, happier and healthier, and smarter and stronger while winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Along the way, trainer Barclay Tagg and Smullen solved the gelding's breathing problem and found a softer, safer bit that wouldn't leave his mouth bloody.

Funny Cide turned the tables on Empire Maker in the Derby, wining by 1 3/4 lengths. Two weeks later, the big red chestnut won the Preakness by a near-record 9 3/4 lengths. On Wednesday, he worked effortlessly, covering five-eighths of a mile in 59 2/5 seconds over a sloppy Belmont track.

Even Tagg, a perfectionist who usually finds something amiss, proclaimed Funny Cide "sound, healthy and happy" after the workout. "It's just been a dream trip since the Wood Memorial," Tagg said. "He's eating up every night. He's training well, sleeping well, breezing well. He's right on track. Whether he'll run well we don't know. But I haven't seen any change in him."

Smullen has, and it has been for the better. "He's getting taller," Smullen said. "He may look leaner, but he's growing. To be growing up and still keep your weight on during this is hard to do. But he's doing it. Am I surprised? Yep."

Baffert said if Funny Cide eats up his tub of food regularly, it's a good sign he has what it takes to win the Belmont. "If he does, watch out," he said. Then again, fatigue can show up any time.

"It's the thing you have to worry about," Smullen said. "It's a rough road he's been on. He appears to be the same horse, but sometimes you won't know until the race itself. Everything can seem to be 100 percent and then they won't quite have what they had in the other races. Hopefully, he'll perform next Saturday like he can."

Jose Santos has been aboard all eight of Funny Cide's starts. He said the gelding has grown up.

Home-track advantage is also in Funny Cide's favor. He lives at Belmont, trains on the track and is 3-for-3 there.

Last year, a record 103,222 watched War Emblem become the eighth horse to fail in a Triple Crown bid since Affirmed won in 1978.

Sarava became the longest shot (70-1) to win the Belmont.

Probable Belmont field

Projected field for Saturday's 135th Belmont Stakes at 11/2 miles at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.

Horse Jockey TrainerLast Race
Best Minister Shane Sellers Ken McPeek Sir Barton (1st)
Dynever Edgar Prado C. Clement Lone Star Derby (1st)
Empire Maker Jerry Bailey Bobby Frankel Kentucky Derby (2nd)
Funny Cide Jose Santos Barclay Tagg Preakness (1st)
Midway Road Robbie Albarado Neil Howard Preakness (2nd)
Outta Here K. Desormeaux William Currin Kentucky Derby (7th)
Scrimshaw Gary Stevens D. Wayne Lukas Preakness (3rd)
Supervisor TBA Linda Rice Peter Pan (3rd)
Ten Most Wanted Pat Day Wallace Dollase Kentucky Derby (9th)

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