ELMONT, N.Y. - Far from the track, behind the state barn, after the hype and the anticipation, after the betting and the drinking were over, Funny Cide snorted and jerked his neck. He yanked his big yellow teeth on his gold bit. He was a spirited handful for his groom and hotwalker.
It was a good sign. A reassuring sign.
"Good boy, good boy," assistant trainer Robin Smullen chanted to the big gelding, whose red coat was getting a vigorous sponge bath.
Barclay Tagg, the old-school curmudgeon trainer, stood at the fence, watching in disbelief and obvious disappointment.
"I just feel bad for all the people behind us. We've had such good feedback the past few weeks. I just feel bad we couldn't do it," Tagg said.
The $1 million purse and the $5 million Triple Crown bonus were clearly on his mind. It was his job to win it for the happy band of owners, but the horse came through the race in good shape. That was consolation.
"His ears are up, he drank a lot of water and I just kept using a voice that let him know we still think he's a special guy. He's bright and alert, beaten but not defeated. He'll live to fight another day," Smullen said.
The Triple Crown was lost. Rather, it was not won - again. The greatest sporting tease will continue. Funny Cide joins Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic and War Emblem on the list of near-misses since 1978.
Let the pundits and handicappers decipher the deep meaning. The Triple Crown campaign can only be won by a super horse. The extra quarter mile in the Belmont will be the undoing of so many game champions. The horses who get beaten in the Kentucky Derby and then forgo the Preakness have a distinct advantage in freshness - just as Empire Maker did yesterday, just as master trainer Bobby Frankel promised.
Thoroughbred racing now has notched the longest stretch in which no Triple Crown has been won: 26 years. And with the deaths of Affirmed and Seattle Slew in the past 2 1/2 years, racing failed to produce a living legend to help invigorate its pulse and broaden its appeal.
Can you see why Funny Cide had so much riding on him yesterday?
Now Seabiscuit the movie will open in July with a lot less synergy, now that Funny Cide has had his 15 minutes of fame - or was that five weeks?
For the sake of a good story - and Funny Cide and Co. were certainly a terrific story - let's call it five weeks of fame. Funny Cide and his connections endured, until the final half mile.
"In the paddock and on the walk out to the track, the crowd was going crazy. I got chills, goose bumps," Smullen said.
"Everybody loves him. He finished third and everyone was still thumbs up. It was great. There have only been 11 Triple Crown winners in history and he's not going anywhere."
They handled the entire campaign like it had been scripted in Hollywood - up until the skies opened and rained on his parade.
"He's done a great job. I wanted him to win for everyone. It was a frenzied experience," Tagg said, adding: "I don't know if he didn't like the mud or he didn't like the extra quarter mile, but he didn't like it."
Funny Cide will be OK, though. He will go on and on, his own quirky legacy still to be written - very differently now from what had been hoped, almost expected.
Look for him at Saratoga this summer, where he will still be king.
Look for him in two years, four years, six years - knock on wood for his continued health - since running stakes is the only way those fun-loving owners from Sackatoga Stables can cash in - and party on.
So what if part of Funny Cide's legacy will be part novelty item. He'll be the answer to trivia questions; the funky perpetrator of eBay paraphernalia - although the stuff's now a lot less expensive.
The better horse crossed the finish line first in the slop and the rain yesterday, but it wasn't the native son everyone was pulling for. The Belmont crowd was in a New York state of mind.
The even-money favorite, on the verge of Triple Crown greatness, was in the lead the first four quarter miles of this marathon trip, the fractions looking like it was his race, yet he was in trouble all the way.
The fresher horse had been tucked in behind, ready to seize the moment, and he did, crossing the finish line first to win the 135th Belmont Stakes, and it wasn't Funny Cide.
So the crowd booed.
That was how the Belmont ended. Not in glory and if not in rain-soaked gloom, then in emptiness.
Jockey Jerry Bailey grinned and pumped his fist into the gray dusk sky, only to invoke the displeasure of the crowd that had come to see Funny Cide become horse racing's latest, rare Triple Crown immortal.
Bailey turned the winner, Empire Maker, back toward the winner's circle, and the rain-slicked spectators jeered and rumbled, then it was quiet.
The electricity and anticipation of seeing history being made turned into a strange kind of silence. It was like the visiting team hitting a game-winning homer in the World Series. Life was sucked out of the place.
Except back at the barn, where life will go back to normal.
"He was beaten, not defeated," Smullen said. "If we get the chance to meet Empire Maker again, that will be great. America loves Funny Cide. He'll be around."
First, he'll get his hind shoes removed. And when the weather clears, he'll get a few weeks to roll around in the pen, have some real fun.