ELMONT, N.Y. - When War Emblem raced for the Triple Crown last year at Belmont Park, a record crowd of 103,222 filled the grand old track on Long Island.
But did America really care? A Saudi Arabian prince bought a horse a month before the Kentucky Derby and nearly won the nation's most prestigious racing series. Still, fans turned out in droves hoping to see history made.
One year after War Emblem's failure, a Triple Crown is on the line again today. This time, however, Funny Cide's quest for racing glory resonates throughout the country - even with people who don't normally follow racing.
Every aspect of Funny Cide's story is appealing - his humble history as a New York-bred gelding, his exuberant owners from small-town USA, his long-struggling and hard-working handlers, his jockey falsely accused of cheating in the Kentucky Derby and then vindicated with an overpowering victory in the Preakness.
"The whole story's got that Hollywood script to it," said D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Scrimshaw, one of five horses challenging Funny Cide in the Belmont.
The script may be from Hollywood, but the plot is New York through-and-through - New York horse, New York jockey, New York trainer, New York owners. That's why Belmont officials expect another record-smashing crowd as Funny Cide attempts to become the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown - and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
Funny Cide would earn a $5 million bonus from Visa for sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and he would be the first gelded horse to do it. He was gelded as a yearling, a common practice with young male thoroughbreds.
Robin Smullen, Funny Cide's exercise rider and assistant to Barclay Tagg, his trainer, says she has been amazed by the response to Funny Cide. She and Tagg have received more than 100 letters intended for the horse from children writing in crayon to elderly women who claim to be penning their first fan letters.
"I don't think it's all about Funny Cide," Smullen said. "Funny Cide has brought a story to light because he's a good horse. But the story is more than just about Funny Cide.
"Probably after 9/11 people are looking for something really good to happen. And 9/11 happened in New York. And this is a New York horse. But it's not only New York. I really get the sense that Funny Cide has become America's horse."
That story line harks back to Secretariat, whose Triple Crown sweep in 1973 was the antidote to the country's malaise over Watergate and the Vietnam War. And now, Funny Cide's pursuit of racing immortality in the Belmont has a tangible link to Secretariat.
Among the gifts presented to Funny Cide's connections, one nearly made Smullen cry. On Thursday, a man presented them Secretariat's overgirth from the Belmont, autographed by Secretariat's trainer, jockey and owner.
An overgirth is the strap that fits snugly around the midsection of a horse and helps hold the saddle in place. The man said he had bought it at a charity auction.
He told Smullen and Tagg he thought it would bring Funny Cide luck if the gelding wore it in the Belmont. Secretariat's 31-length Belmont victory was, after all, racing's most electric moment.
Funny Cide's handlers decided against using the overgirth out of safety concerns; it is 30 years old. But they plan on carrying it with them when they lead Funny Cide over for the race.
Tagg, who trained in Maryland three decades before relocating to New York, says Funny Cide is ready - "perfect, really." From the old-fashioned, conservative school of training, Tagg, 65, had never run a horse in a Triple Crown race before saddling Funny Cide for the Kentucky Derby.
The gelding won by 1 3/4 lengths in the 10th fastest of the 129 Derbys. Then he won the Preakness by 9 3/4 lengths in the second-biggest winning margin in the 128 versions of the stakes.
"These last two races, we've been very, very lucky," Tagg said. "Whether we win or lose [the Belmont], I couldn't have asked for a better trip through the Triple Crown."
Tagg has helped ensure that by keeping a tight rein on Funny Cide. He defied tradition by arriving at Churchill Downs a mere three days before the Derby. He sneaked Funny Cide into Pimlico Race Course the day before the Preakness. At Belmont, he has kept the media away from his barn and avoided photographers by changing workout times and routes that Funny Cide took to and from the track.
He even angered LeRoy Neiman, who showed up Tuesday to paint Funny Cide's portrait. Tagg said he told Neiman: "After Saturday, I'll tie him to a tree and you can paint him for a month."
But no way was Tagg going to bring Funny Cide out of his stall and risk the horse doing something reckless - rearing, bucking, lunging sideways - and hurting himself the week of the Belmont.
"I tend to be overprotective," Tagg said. "A million things have to go right to win a race, but only one thing has to go wrong to lose.