Adding `Seabiscuit' to `Funny' ices summer

July 30, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The Funny Cide store on Caroline Street is the place to go for T-shirts and mugs bearing the picture of the underdog horse who rode a populist wave of anticipation into the Belmont Stakes.

Did racing have another endearing outsider to lift its ailing profile? Did racing have another Seabiscuit?

Ah, probably not.

Funny Cide Fever has subsided a bit since that soggy day in June when the superior-bred and highly touted Empire Maker fired in the slop and mud and buried the best Hollywood story-in-the-making since, well, Seabiscuit.

It was a stirring ride, but the gelding's failure to capture the Triple Crown seems to have relegated Funny Cide to a pleasant footnote in horse racing history.

Then again, maybe not.

Jack Knowlton, managing partner of Sackatoga Stable, said a Funny Cide book is in the works, Funny Cide commemorative wine is on sale and, with Seabiscuit in theaters everywhere, "It's a perfect storm for horse racing. " The summer of horse love continues in this quaint, Victorian city.

Saratoga Race Course - the one that makes racing fans in Maryland yearn for a major do-over at Pimlico ASAP - is awash in gleaming white paint and red bunting. Throngs of fans/bettors/partygoers are streaming through the turnstiles, proving a horse racing meet can be the center attraction during high tourist season.

The New York Racing Association honchos may be in hot water for major improprieties, but at least the cards at Saratoga are full, the fields deep, the horses top-quality. It's a dream scenario, all pointing toward the pinnacle on Aug. 23, when the Travers Stakes will be run.

No wonder, then, that the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce has stuck a "Funny Cide Fever" meter in front of City Hall.

The Kentucky Derby was big, according to the meter. The Preakness was bigger, but the $1 million Travers will be off the charts. Not only will it be the home course debut for Saratoga-bred Funny Cide, but the Tr!avers also looks to be the anticipated rematch between Funny Cide and Empire Maker.

Seabiscuit helps fuel this real-life drama. Talk about synergy.

Movie theaters all around Saratoga are playing Gary Ross' adaptation of painstaking author Laura Hillenbrand's book on two screens. License plates from Kentucky and Maryland are seen in parking lots - a sign that insiders from this country's racing hotbeds in town for the Saratoga meet are eager to get an early look at Seabiscuit.

The movie, in the pre-opening hype and subsequent rave reviews, has done a lot to pump energy into racing. It's little wonder.

The original grainy footage of the Seabiscuit/War Admiral match race in 1938 is pretty good, but the choreographed (by Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron) race footage in Seabiscuit does nothing less than make a viewer feel smack in the middle of the fast, furious action.

Then there are the characters: jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges.) These kinds of people and these kinds of relationships are what make horse racing such a continuing source of fascination.

The sport of kings has long been looking for a national public relations campaign. Look at the effort Pimlico owner and horse racing maverick Frank Stronach has tried to do by buying the likes of Gulfstream, Santa Anita and Maryland's main tracks.

If NYRA goes down in scandal, Stronach may get a piece of the big-stakes racing action in New York, too. No doubt Stronach and his Magna Entertainment company have generated a buzz for racing insiders with a vision for "racinos" and a horse racing television network.

Nothing, however, can do more to stir the general population's interest in racing than a movie like Seabiscuit. This kind of colorful, authentic effort translates racing's quirks, nuances and intensity to an otherwise apathetic audience.

No wonder, then, that Kenny Mayne and the ESPN cameras are broadcasting live from Saratoga throughout the meet.

The stage is set. Momentum exists.

This Sunday, another chapter is in the works. Funny Cide is entered in the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. The gelding can make no money in the stud barn, so his owners must race him for the biggest paydays available.

"A million-dollar race is twice as good as a $500,000 race," said Knowlton, who is building a long-term career for Funny Cide.

Meanwhile, Empire Maker - whose stud fees can be padded with every victory - will run in Sunday's $500,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

The plot is simple: Both horses win on Sunday, both are healthy on Aug. 23, both arrive at the starting gate for the Travers, with cameras rolling and a nation's interest not just piqued, but at full throttle.

"This could be the greatest Travers ever," Knowlton said.

It's tough to disagree. This rematch would be a cardioblast racing needs.

Go Funny Cide.

Go Empire Maker.

It's been a good summer for so-called minor sports. Actually, it's been amazing.

Cycling has had its day. Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor, survived two harrowing falls and fatigue to win his fifth consecutive Tour de France.

Swimming was pushed to the front pages and major TV time in a non-Olympic year when Towson's Michael Phelps ripped through the pool in Barcelona to break five world records in the world championships last week.

But it all started back in May with an underdog equine athlete named Funny Cide. He nailed that Derby win. He romped in the Preakness. He was the modern incarnation of a beloved horse who lit the hearts of the nation 65 years ago.

Funny Cide. Seabiscuit. Let the summer of horse love continue.

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