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Nothing Plastic About Bonus

Funny Cide will face five rivals in bid for Triple Crown and an extra $5 million, thanks to Lewis.

June 05, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y — ELMONT, N.Y. -- Six years ago, in the middle of the game, Bob Lewis hard-sold the Triple Crown sponsor into making the $5-million bonus worth a full $5 million. What a quaint idea. Now Lewis is running a longshot colt in the 135th Belmont Stakes, trying to keep Funny Cide from collecting that same elusive $5 million.

Scrimshaw, who runs for Bob Lewis and his wife Beverly, was listed at 20-1 Wednesday when six horses, including the even-money favorite Funny Cide, were entered for Saturday's Belmont. The race lost a contender when Best Minister, coughing at the barn after a morning gallop, was withdrawn.

With Best Minister out, Funny Cide has Empire Maker, Dynever, Ten Most Wanted and Supervisor to beat besides Scrimshaw. It's the smallest turnout for a Belmont since Tabasco Cat beat five horses to win here in 1994. With a lot of rain falling Wednesday, and more on the way, there's a chance this will be the first off-track since 1993, when Colonial Affair won.

Funny Cide, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, has an affinity for goo, and his post position of No. 4 is of no import, which is the case in small- as well as large-field Belmonts. In a U.S. racing rarity, they run 1 1/2 miles, a full tour of Belmont Park's sprawling 12-furlong oval. Inside, outside, in the middle and even from the rail, Belmont winners can come from anywhere.

"I can go right or left [out of the gate]," said Jose Santos, who rides Funny Cide. Jerry Bailey, who rides Empire Maker, the Derby runner-up and 6-5 second choice in the Belmont, better not go left. Empire Maker drew the inside post, which didn't faze Bailey. "It's not relevant," he said. "It's hard to get a bad post in this race."

Bailey presented a scenario of Funny Cide, Scrimshaw and Empire Maker running 1-2-3 during the early infighting, cautioning that none of the previous 134 Belmonts has ever been run on paper.

"Look at last year," Bailey said. "War Emblem stumbled out of the gate and everything changed. But I see the three horses I named as being on the lead, in some variation."

This is the field, in post-position order: Empire Maker, with Bailey, at 6-5; Supervisor, John Velazquez, 50-1; Scrimshaw, Gary Stevens, 20-1; Funny Cide, Santos, even money; Dynever, Edgar Prado, 5-1; and Ten Most Wanted, Pat Day, 10-1.

Even with bad weather, the crowd may top last year's record of 103,222. To say there is a groundswell of support for the New York-bred, New York-owned Funny Cide is rank understatement.

The mob will not dally at the windows with Scrimshaw, who earned his way into the Triple Crown with a win at Keeneland in mid-April, but whose third-place finish in the Preakness still found him the same 10 1/2 lengths behind Funny Cide when he was 11th in the Derby.

"He'll have to step up in the Belmont," trainer Wayne Lukas said. Lukas and the Lewises were upset orchestrators here in 2000, with the 18-1 Commendable, but that was against an undistinguished field. There was hardly a horse running then who could even warm up a Funny Cide or an Empire Maker.

Three years before Commendable, Bob Lewis pushed the envelope with Visa USA, which had vicariously listed the $5-million payoff for a Triple Crown sweep as a "guarantee" or a "bonus." The distinction was important to Lewis, whose Silver Charm had won the Derby and Preakness and was in a position to sweep. Visa was saying that winning all three races would result in a $5-million total payout, which would include the first-place purses from the three races. According to that, extra money would only be about $3.4 million, since the purses were worth $1.6 million.

"Wait a minute," said Lewis, who is chairman of the second-largest beer distributorship in California. "A bonus is a bonus. In my dictionary, bonus means 'payment over the usual required amount.' The horse has already won the [Derby and Preakness] purses. The bonus is beyond that, not part of that. If I pay one of my beer-truck drivers a Christmas bonus, I don't deduct his regular week's salary before I give it to him."

An insurance policy had been written to presumably cover a $5-million-only payout, so Visa did a little hemming and quite a bit more hawing. Lewis played his trump card: Silver Charm. No full-value $5-million bonus, no Silver Charm in the Belmont.

Lewis called his trainer, Bob Baffert, first. "I wouldn't want to do this without your approval," Lewis said.

"Go ahead," Baffert said.

Painted into the well-known corner, Visa crumbled. The ensuing spin was that the world's largest manufacturer of plastic, so thrilled to have a horse with Silver Charm's universal popularity, was upping the ante.

Lewis could only sit back and smile, although Silver Charm ran second to Touch Gold in the Belmont. This Belmont, the most Scrimshaw can earn for the Lewises is $600,000. But if Funny Cide wins, it will net his owners $5.6 million, and by rights Bob Lewis should be in for a piece.

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