Kentucky Derby, Preakness Winner tries to make it three in a row.By Richard Rosenblatt
The Associated Press
NEW YORK -- Funny Cide is being touted as America's horse, a flashy New York-bred red chestnut gelding who is two-thirds of the way home in his quest to win the Triple Crown.
Now comes the hardest part -- winning the Belmont Stakes on what could turn into a wet, sloppy racetrack.
"I hope he smashes the field," says Penny Chenery, who owned 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat.
Funny Cide will have to overcome five rivals today to become racing's first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. But the rain in the forecast might jeopardize his chances.
Then again, Funny Cide could thrive in the slop.
"It doesn't seem to bother him in his training," Funny Cide trainer Barclay Tagg said Friday, one of the only days it hasn't rained here in two weeks. "He did run on a couple of fairly wet tracks and handled them all right, so I'd imagine he's OK with that."
There was a 70 percent chance of rain developing late on race day. Post time is 5:38 p.m. CDT.
A muddy surface only increases potential problems for a horse, especially in the longest race of its life around the sweeping turns at 1 1/2-mile Belmont. It could hinder Funny Cide's running style of longer and more powerful strides as the race goes on.
The even-money favorite had two effortless workouts over a muddy Belmont track -- one in April, the other last week. And in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 12, he finished second to Empire Maker over a muddy, but drying, surface.
The gelding's win in the Kentucky Derby came on a fast track, his victory in the Preakness was over a track listed as good after heavy rains ended early on race day.
Of the 11 Triple Crown champions, only two encountered off-tracks in the Belmont -- Seattle Slew won over a muddy surface in 1977 and Omaha won in the slop in 1935.
Rain or shine, Funny Cide makes his run at immortality with the home-track advantage, something he has in common with the last three Triple Crown winners.
After victories in the Derby and Preakness, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed all trained at Belmont for the Belmont.
"We know every corner of the track," jockey Jose Santos said. "He's been working here since he was a 2-year-old. He's 3-for-3 here, and I've been riding for 18 years here."
Because it's rare for horses to run such a long distance, it's sometimes difficult for jockeys to judge the right spot on the track to make a move.
It's happened before with the Triple Crown on the line.
Poor rides were attributed to several failures in the Belmont, including Kent Desormeaux's early move aboard Real Quiet in '98, and Ronnie Franklin's decision to allow Spectacular Bid to get into an early speed duel with a long shot in '79.
"It's not an easy track to know," Santos said, "and sometimes you make a move you think is right, but in the end it's the wrong move."
Funny Cide is the fifth horse in the last seven years with a Triple chance, but this time there seems to be a stronger sense that a Triple Crown champion will be crowned -- not to mention a $5 million sponsor bonus the horse's owners will receive.
"I think he's going to do it," Santos said. "I'm very confident that you guys are going to see history."
A record crowd that could reach 120,000 will watch Funny Cide try to become the first gelding in the elite Triple Crown family of colts -- Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew an Affirmed.
Just about everything is pointing to a Funny Cide victory.
The son of Distorted Humor appears stronger and more eager to race, positive signs for a 3-year-old that might normally be tired from the punishing five-week grind of three races at three tracks at different distances.
"I think he's perfect," Tagg said. "He kept his fluids good, he kept eating well. He's nice and sound, and happy. I couldn't have asked for a better trip through the Triple Crown.
"Whether he wins or loses, I think he came into it great."
History is working in Funny Cide's favor, too. A small field looks like an edge.
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 Derby and 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," says trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will send out 20-1 long shot Scrimshaw in the role of spoiler. "I'm going to try to keep that from happening."
So will the others, especially Empire Maker, the 6-5 second choice. Also running are Dynever (5-1), Ten Most Wanted (10-1) and Supervisor (50-1).
Only Supervisor and Empire Maker, the Kentucky Derby favorite who skipped the Preakness, have run over off-tracks.
No matter what the result, assistant trainer and exercise rider Robin Smullen says Funny Cide will be loved.
"He'll still be everybody's favorite horse," Smullen said. "It doesn't matter if he wins. We just want him to show up and run his race. If he doesn't win, rest assured he was beaten by a better horse."