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Funny Cide Has a Quick Getaway

Horse works out three hours earlier than planned and runs a fast, maybe too fast, five furlongs.

June 04, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y. — Dozens of reporters, a number of camera crews -- and the mustachioed sports artist LeRoy Neiman -- missed Funny Cide's crack-of-dawn appearance Tuesday at Belmont Park, where trainer Barclay Tagg worked his horse more than three hours earlier than he had said he would.

Tagg, known for his unexpected moves, put a new spin on home-field advantage for Saturday's Belmont Stakes, a race that will be worth $5.6 million in purse and bonus money to Funny Cide's owners if their 3-year-old gelding becomes the 12th horse to sweep the Triple Crown.

What happened after Funny Cide, with exercise rider Robin Smullen aboard, became the first horse on the track at 5:30 a.m. may give encouragement to the trainers of the other six horses in the Belmont. Funny Cide's time for five furlongs was a blazing 57 4/5 seconds, almost two seconds faster than what Tagg expected. One clocker, from the Daily Racing Form, caught Funny Cide's workout in an even 57 seconds. Last Wednesday, Funny Cide worked five furlongs in a more subdued :59 2/5.

"[Tagg] is not going to be happy with that work," said Bobby Frankel, the trainer of Empire Maker, who will be the second choice behind Funny Cide.

For his part, Tagg downplayed the workout.

"He does it so easy, that's just him," he said. "I don't think this will take the edge off."

Neiman has been a regular visitor at Tagg's barn as he prepares to paint the Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner.

"[Neiman] is probably mad, because I told him a week ago that the horse would breeze at 9 a.m.," Tagg said. "But I can't remember everything. He can come back after Saturday and I'll tie Funny Cide to a tree. He can paint him for a month if he wants to."

Tagg said that he called an audible on Funny Cide's workout because the track was in such great shape early. His main reason, however, was probably to shield the horse from all the reporters and photographers who slept in.

"We were there," said a reporter from the Racing Form. "Tagg's history would have made it a surprise if he didn't work him ahead of schedule."

After announcing that Funny Cide wouldn't be vanned from Belmont to Pimlico for the Preakness until the day of the race, Tagg shipped the horse a day early. Not long before the horse was loaded on the van, Tagg told a lone photographer at the barn that Funny Cide was in his stall and "wouldn't do anything else today."

The 48 other horses that worked five furlongs Tuesday went much slower than Funny Cide. In fact, the next fastest time was :59 2/5, by multiple stakes winner Evening Attire.

"The track was absolutely perfect [at 5:30]," Tagg said. "I would rather have three or four [reporters] around than a hundred. He can get pretty excited, and I can't have that every time he works."

Smullen said that she had no choice but to let Funny Cide roll. His fractions for the first half-mile were :22 and :45, and he galloped out six furlongs in 1:11 3/5.

"He went the first eighth [of a mile] faster than I would have liked, and then he finished strong," Smullen said. "If I had restrained him more than I did, he would have gone much faster, so we had to compromise. When I took the tack off him, he wasn't blowing. It was like he hadn't even been out there. It was a nice, comfortable work after the first eighth."

Other prominent horses have worked excessively fast before Triple Crown races, with varying results. Three days before the 1979 Kentucky Derby, General Assembly worked five furlongs in :57 2/5 at Churchill Downs. He ran second to Spectacular Bid. In 1988, trainer Louie Roussel fretted after Risen Star worked three furlongs in :33 3/5, missing the U.S. record by three-fifths of a second, but the next day the colt won the Belmont by 14 3/4 lengths. Free House lost a close decision to Silver Charm in the 1997 Preakness after he worked a half-mile in :45 3/5 four days before the race.

Frankel remembers his headstrong filly Honest Lady working five furlongs in about 57 seconds before her second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Churchill Downs in 2000.

"But that was eight days before the race," Frankel said. "We had time to adjust when we trained her between that work and the race. When you've got a horse dead fit, you usually don't want to make any mistakes. Honest Lady ran a good race -- the fast work took nothing away from her. A fast work close to a race can be a double-edged sword. It's possible that it can dull a horse."

Funny Cide might be the best of his generation on any track, but his first three wins, all as a 2-year-old, came at Belmont Park, the oval that he regularly trains over. Many horsemen consider this to be an added advantage for Tagg's horse.

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