Triple test is tough

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2003

NEW YORK A safety pin derailed Spectacular Bid.

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 June 7 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 horses 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 Steve Cauthen, who rode the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, in 1978. ''You can't have any setbacks.''

Funny Cide might just 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's 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 anytime.

''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 quickly.

''In the Preakness, he was pretty smart the way he settled behind the leaders,'' Santos said. ''By the time I asked him to go, he was right there. In the winner's circle, with 300 people there and with flowers on his neck, he didn't even move.

''That's a horse with a lot of class. He goes to the track, does what he has to, and does it in good fashion.''

Home track advantage is also in Funny Cide's favor. He lives at Belmont, trains on the track and is 3-for-3 there. While many Triple Crown contenders arrived a few days before the race, Funny Cide was back in his barn about eight hours after winning the Preakness on May 17.

''He knows every corner of this race track and it's a big advantage,'' Santos said. ''I know the track very well, too. It's not an easy track. Sometimes you can make a move you think is the right move, but in the end, it's the wrong move.''

With a hometown horse also comes a hometown crowd, and New York Racing Association officials are expecting a record turnout that could reach 125,000. 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.

Jack Knowlton, the general partner for Sackatoga, a partnership that includes high school buddies from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., said his entourage will arrive in a yellow school bus for the race.

''We did it for the Derby and Preakness, and we're not going to change now,'' he said. ''Hopefully we can pull off one more win.''

Sometimes, even great horses fall short. Spectacular Bid was among the best 3-year-olds not to win the Triple Crown. Trainer Bud Delp claimed his colt stepped on a safety pin in his stall before the '79 Belmont. But it may have been more than that fatigue coupled with a poor decision by jockey Ronnie Franklin to get into a speed duel with 85-1 shot Gallant Best.

While there's great anticipation that Funny Cide will end the 25-year drought and join the likes of Citation, Whirlaway, Secretariat and Seattle Slew as Triple Crown champions, there are other intangibles to consider. A fresh face in the field, for example.

Take Dynever. New to the Triple Crown trail, Dynever has won three in a row, including the Lone Star Derby. There's also Empire Maker, considered this year's Triple Crown threat before his Derby loss. The colt trained by Bobby Frankel skipped the Preakness and should be well-rested for his chance to play spoiler.

''This time of year, 3-year-olds are developing at different stages,'' Tagg said. ''You could look like you have the best horse in the Belmont, but there could be some other horse out there bred to run that far, and he just runs away with it.''

Sarava did just that last year, ending War Emblem's Triple bid and becoming the longest shot (70-1) to win the Belmont.

Thirty years ago, Secretariat ran perhaps the greatest race in history, clinching the Triple Crown with a breathtaking 31-length victory in the Belmont on June, 9, 1973. The win gave racing its first Triple since Citation in 1948 ending 25 years between Triple Crowns.

Funny Cide can end a 25-year wait, too. And because he's a gelding and can't be turned out to stud, he'll likely continue to race for the next few years.

''It's long overdue racing fans have been waiting for a great horse to come along,'' Cauthen said. ''The great thing about Funny Cide is he'll be around for a few years and the public will be able to enjoy him. I can't think of anything better than for him to pull this off.''



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