For Classic, `Funny's' side thinking Preakness

`Happy' horse's handlers hope for May-like effort

October 24, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARCADIA, Calif. - The benchmark is the Preakness.

Robin Smullen, exercise rider of Funny Cide, said the New York-bred gelding who won two-thirds of the Triple Crown is poised to run a race equal to his Preakness effort in the Breeders' Cup Classic tomorrow at Santa Anita Park.

"Is that good enough to win? I don't know," Smullen said. "I get on his back every day, and he's as fit now as he's ever been. He's put on weight. He's dappled out. He's healthy. He's happy. He's as good as we can get him without having a race."

The key phrase is "without having a race." The longest a horse has been idle before winning the Breeders' Cup Classic is 49 days (Black Tie Affair in 1991). Funny Cide will attempt the highly improbable: win the richest race in North America without having raced in 83 days.

Yet Funny Cide's story is about the improbable. High school buddies from tiny Sacketts Harbor, N.Y., pooled $5,000 apiece and bought a few horses. They ended up with Funny Cide, the kind of horse sheiks and princes dream of owning.

Barclay Tagg has trained horses (mostly not very good ones) for three decades, mainly in Maryland, now in New York. He mined the depths of his experience with the headstrong, high-strung horse and found himself in the sanctified winner's circles of the Kentucky Derby and then, two weeks later, the Preakness.

Add to that the unjustified accusation of cheating in the Derby that turned the well-liked Jose Santos, Funny Cide's jockey, into a sympathetic figure, and the circumstances that led to Santos being replaced for the Classic with the ever-popular Julie Krone, and you have the ingredients for an old-fashioned, feel-good, bring-on-the-tears kind of tale.

Its appeal has even touched the Europeans who have traveled to California for the Cup.

"If Funny Cide can win, then that's your Seabiscuit story," said Simon Clare, an English oddsmaker, referring to the people's champion of the 1930s whose inspirational story is unfolding in movie theaters across the country. "Sadly, stories don't win races."

Oddly, Funny Cide's chances of not winning the Classic played a major role in his handlers' late decision to run in the Classic. They had the choice of running in the Empire Classic, a $250,000 stakes for New York-breds in their own backyard at Belmont, or the Breeders' Cup Classic, a $4 million stakes for the world's best horses across the country in California.

"At 1-5 in the Empire Classic, if he'd have lost, it would have been a devastating defeat," said Smullen, who is Tagg's mate in life and assistant at the barn. "At 12-1 in the Breeders' Cup Classic, he's expected to get beat. So why not take a shot?"

The reasoning that led to running in the Breeders' Cup, a stern challenge of 1 1/4 miles, was Smullen's. It perhaps took a woman's logic to break a stalemate between men.

The dilemma was what to do with Funny Cide after third-place finishes in the Belmont and, two months later, the Haskell Invitational Handicap at Monmouth Park. Funny Cide emerged from the Haskell with a temperature and blood disorder, indicative of an infection. He recovered slowly.

As Funny Cide neared a return to competition, Smullen and Tagg searched the stakes schedule and settled on a $100,000 race next Wednesday at Aqueduct, the Discovery Handicap. They figured he could win that easily and then come back in the Grade I $350,000 Cigar Mile on Nov. 29 at Aqueduct.

Trouble was, the owners didn't want to run their Derby and Preakness winner in a $100,000 race. They are a group of 10 businessmen who capitalized on Funny Cide's success and popularity, largely a product of their own Cinderella story, to market Funny Cide hats, buttons, T-shirts, photos, candy, wine and beer - to list a partial inventory.

"Our first choice was nixed by the owners," Smullen said.

She and Tagg gradually soured on the Empire Classic. They feared that a 1 1/8 -mile race around one turn, with a long, straight run down the backstretch, could be Funny Cide's undoing. He tends to get caught up in the early competition and go too fast.

And they figured that if Funny Cide lost against New York-breds, then he would lose any chance of winning the Eclipse Award as the top 3-year-old. But if he lost against the best horses in the Classic, but still performed admirably, then he would not be disgraced and could still win the 3-year-old championship, especially if he finished ahead of Ten Most Wanted, the other 3-year-old in the race.

As Smullen, Tagg and Funny Cide's owners figured all this out, Santos, who'd ridden the gelding in all 10 of his races, waited as long as he could. Finally, he agreed to ride Volponi in the Classic. The two had teamed to win the race last year. That allowed Smullen and Tagg to employ the jockey they'd believed all along would fit Funny Cide best - Krone.

There is no better-known jockey than Krone, 40, and her ability to communicate with horses is unsurpassed. Smullen said that if Krone can get Funny Cide to relax and settle in third or fourth behind the early leaders, then he will perform as forcefully as he did in the Preakness. He won that day at Pimlico Race Course by 9 3/4 lengths - and looked invincible.

Breeders' Cup

What:Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships

Where:Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, Calif.

When:Tomorrow

Feature race:$4 million Classic (post time 5:35 p.m.)

TV:Chs. 11, 4, 1-6 p.m.

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