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Belmont has six horses, one story

Posted: Friday, June 06, 2003

Too many people will tune into the Belmont for a few minutes Saturday afternoon, find out there are only a half-dozen horses entered, and wonder what all the fuss is about.

If all goes according to plan, the even-money favorite Funny Cide will cross the finish line ahead of a handful of pursuers strung out like stick figures on that long, sandy strip.

Then they'll wonder why no horse has won the Triple Crown in a quarter-century.

Nobody knows better than Bob Baffert how tough it is.

''You can't imagine,'' he said.

So consider this a public-service reminder. Since 1919, there were 27 horses that won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and arrived in New York with a shot at the sport's most magical accomplishment. Only 11 went on to get the job done.

Being the favorite hardly makes it a cinch. Remember what happened to two of the biggest ones earlier this week.

Home-run king Sammy Sosa got caught using a corked bat while trying to add to his total against the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Serena Williams left the French Open in tears, knocked out by skinny Justine Henin-Hardenne and a hostile crowd.

More than anybody else in his racket, Baffert knows about sure things. The silver-haired trainer arrived in New York in June three times since 1997 needing only the last piece of the puzzle to complete the first triple since Affirmed locked one up for Laz Barrera in 1978.

One of his horses, Real Quiet, lost by the narrowest margin a nose to Victory Gallop in 1998. Last year, War Emblem stumbled leaving the gate and was still asking for directions when Sarava hit the wire more than 19 lengths up the track.

But tough memories are not the only reason Baffert will be watching the final leg from the comfort of a sofa in his California home.

He's already taken his best shot.

Funny Cide beat Baffert's Indian Express at the Derby, and when the big red gelding did the same to Senor Swinger at the Preakness, the trainer stood near the paddock under a mournful gray sky and announced: ''I'm getting off the bus at this stop.''

Enough horsemen have followed suit to drain some of the luster as opposed to the actual competition from the Belmont.

''It's a great story,'' trainer D. Wayne Lukas said Thursday about Funny Cide, ''but without it, we don't have very much to go on. This is a really bland race.''

Lukas, who has won the Belmont four times, trained the other horse to have a Triple Crown shot in the last six years. That was Charismatic, who broke a bone in the stretch run of the 1999 Belmont and lost to a 30-1 shot named Lemon Drop Kid.

The winning jockey that day was Jose Santos, who will be aboard Funny Cide on Saturday. Santos understands less traffic and the longer distance (1 1/2 miles) fit his horse's high-revving running style. The flip side is that puts the emphasis on strategy and especially luck, something he hardly needs to be reminded about.

''Yes, it's a small field. But remember,'' he said, ''anything can happen when they open the door.''

Make what you will of these numbers: The average size of the field in the 11 Belmonts that produced a Triple Crown winner was 5.4 horses. In the 16 Belmonts in which a horse won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but lost the third leg, the field averaged 10 horses.

''If everything goes according to script, we'll probably have a Triple Crown winner,'' Lukas said. ''I'm going to try to keep that from happening.''

Those words would sound better coming from a trainer whose horse had not been decisively whipped by Funny Cide twice already, the way Lukas' Scrimshaw has.

Then again, considering how few entries there are, it's surprising how much woofing took place in the backstretch during the week.

The best of it came from brash Bobby Frankel, whose Empire Maker beat Funny Cide in the Wood Memorial an important Derby prep then finished second to the gelding in the Derby and passed on the Preakness.

''I still think mine is better,'' Frankel said, repeating something he said in the disappointment of a late Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs, at the start of the Triple Crown quest. ''The way the nature of this game is, the one who wins last is the one they are going to remember.''

Which is the way it should be.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist with The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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