Horse Play

Funny Cide, the people's choice, embodies every railbird's dream.

Every broken-down horseplayer has a hero story to tell, and it never hurts to listen. You could be draining an ice-cold martini in the bar at Siro's, up at Saratoga, when Frankie Bales sits down to describe the time he parlayed the rail speed at Monmouth into a $12,000 pick six. You might find yourself in the grim second-floor horse parlor at the Mile High Kennel Club, with its busted chairs and dungeon lighting, when Saul the Fishman retells the classic, as comfortable as old shoes by now, about his huge trifecta at Suffolk Downs. He held the only winning ticket in the place. He never had a day like that again.

You could be anywhere, from the starched-linen-and-crystal splendor of the clubhouse at Santa Anita to the wind-whipped, dung-stained desolation of Arapahoe Park. Somebody is going to remove his battle-weary face from the folds of the Daily Racing Formlong enough to regale you with how he picked $64 winner Charismatic in the 1999 Kentucky Derby. Or the time he drove all night to Pimlico and caught Manila at 14-1 on the turf.

The details may vary, but the essence of the story remains the same. It's always about courage, insight and dumb luck -- the horseplayer's Book of Virtues, the things that keep him going when his third wife has packed up and left, the old Buick cries out for a valve job and not even his best pal will loan him ten bucks. Told in the cemetery of hope, the horseplayer's hero story is always about belief.

Enter Funny Cide, running his eyeballs out.

Racetrack fantasy is one of the world's richest mines. But the craziest degenerate who ever blew the rent money on exactas, then sold his wristwatch and hearing aid in the parking lot, couldn't have dreamed this story up.

On Saturday afternoon at New York's Belmont Park, yet another three-year-old who has won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness will try to break the long Triple Crown jinx by showing his tail to the field in the Belmont Stakes. In itself, that's not news. Since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown 25 years ago, no fewer than eight horses have found themselves on the brink. All eight have failed in the grueling, mile-and-a-half Belmont, including War Emblem last year. But Funny Cide's story is different. Man, is it different.

For one thing, Funny Cide is a New York-bred. New York is famous for hot pastrami, the Yankees and a few hundred other things. But fast racehorses are not among them. No New York-bred had ever won the Derby until Funny Cide held off favored Empire Maker at the wire on May 3 by nearly two lengths. For another thing, the big red three-year-old is a gelding, which means that he has been relieved of his testicles and is thus forever lost to the lucrative business of thoroughbred breeding. Said another way, he has guts on the track but no balls in the barn. The last time a gelding won the Derby was 1929.

Purchased at the Saratoga yearling sale of 2001 for just $22,000 -- what Ogden Phipps used to spend on lunch for his friends -- the modestly bred Funny Cide is the property of ten high school buddies from tiny Sacketts Harbor, New York -- a village on the shore of Lake Ontario so far north of Syracuse that it helps to speak French if you want fries at the local diner. At the Derby and the Preakness (which Funny Cide won by an eye-popping 9 3/4 lengths), the blue-collar owners and their supporters arrived not by limousine, but by rented yellow school bus. Look for several yellow buses at Belmont Park come Saturday: The horse has won almost $2 million so far, but the owners don't want to queer their luck when it comes to maybe scoring the $5 million bonus Visa promises to pay a Triple Crown winner.

There's more. Funny Cide's trainer is not glib, silver-haired Bob Baffert or cool, corporate D. Wayne Lukas, but a sour old veteran named Barclay Tagg, a third-drawer type who raced horses at Pimlico for more than thirty years before getting this one into the Preakness. Amid the Triple Crown frenzy, Tagg's been about as expressive as Amarillo Slim with a full house and twice as intriguing for it.

Still more. The jockey is Jose Santos, a grizzled Chilean master -- he's especially brilliant on grass -- who topped all riders in purse earnings from 1986 to 1989. But his career took a sudden fall in 1992, when he suffered multiple fractures in a horrific spill at -- where else? -- Belmont Park. For years a mentor to younger jockeys like Edgar Prado, Shane Sellers and Cornelio Velasquez, Santos is one of the most revered race riders in the game. So the jockey community was outraged when the Funny Cide fantasy took its most bizarre turn in the wake of his Derby win.

After looking at some suspicious race photographs, a Miami Heraldreporter charged Santos with illegally using an electric prod (known in the barns as a gator, a battery or a machine) on his mount to make him run faster. An inquiry at Churchill Downs cleared Santos of any wrongdoing two days after the race, but the sting of accusation stayed with him. As he annihilated the Preakness field on May 17 by the second-largest margin in the 128-year history of the race, Santos threw his powerful right hand open to the racing world's cameras -- in rebuke as well as triumph.

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