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THE 135th BELMONT STAKES Today, 3:38 p.m., Channel
4, Third Leg of the Triple Crown Series

Making a Run at History

Funny Cide will have five challengers as he tries to become the first horse since 1978 to sweep the Triple Crown races

June 07, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y. — While some handicappers, looking for a way to beat Funny Cide in today's Belmont Stakes, point to the horse's blazing-fast workout as a negative, trainer Wayne Lukas is just the opposite. The faster they work, the better they often are, Lukas says.

Just after dawn on Tuesday, in his last workout for today's bid for Triple Crown immortality, Funny Cide ran a headstrong 57 4/5 seconds for five furlongs. That time almost always wins races at that distance.

Trainer Bobby Frankel, perhaps wishful thinking because he's running the second choice, Empire Maker, suggested that Funny Cide might be dulled by his workout.

But Lukas, who has won the Belmont four times and is running longshot Scrimshaw today, was impressed by Funny Cide's early morning eagerness. Lukas has spent the Triple Crown trying to beat the New York-bred gelding. He finished eighth and 11th in the Kentucky Derby, with Ten Cents A Shine and Scrimshaw, and was third and ninth, with Scrimshaw finishing ahead of Ten Cents A Shine, in the Preakness.

"I saw the tape of that [Funny Cide] work," Lukas said at his Belmont barn. "The horse was pulling [exercise rider Robin Smullen] out of the saddle. I think the horse was just showing his readiness, and if that's the right read, then that's bad news for the rest of us."

Smullen said Funny Cide didn't seem to be worn out from the workout, and the horse's trainer, Barclay Tagg, said Friday that he has sent Funny Cide through his usual post-workout routine -- a day of walking followed by a couple of clockwise, or wrong-way, gallops -- without ill effects. On Thursday, Funny Cide threatened to rear up when he was being schooled in the Belmont Park paddock.

"I think he gets mad when he doesn't get a chance to run," said Tagg, a 65-year-old horseman who's engaged in his first Triple Crown. "But everything's perfect. He's sound and he's happy. Whether he wins or loses, he's coming up to this race in great fashion."

Like Lukas, trainer Nick Zito saw Funny Cide's workout as a good sign for Tagg. Zito, winner of the Kentucky Derby twice, is a New York-based trainer who has never won the Belmont and doesn't have a starter in today's race.

"They made a big deal about Funny Cide working about two seconds faster than the previous time," Zito said, "but you have to understand that the previous work [in 59 2/5 seconds on May 28] was over a muddy track. You throw that into the equation, and [the 59 2/5 work] is about the same as the one this week."

Zito likes Funny Cide's chances to win today, sweep the series and become the 12th Triple Crown champion and the first since Affirmed in 1978. Four horses -- Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Lukas' Charismatic and War Emblem last year -- have gotten this far in the last six years before getting knocked off in the Belmont.

"I think Funny Cide should have enough left to hold up," Zito said. "Empire Maker will test him, but I think Funny Cide's just a little better than Empire Maker."

The horses have split two decisions. Empire Maker beat Funny Cide by a half-length in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 12, on a day when Jerry Bailey, Empire Maker's jockey, said that his colt wasn't all out. Favored in the Derby, Empire Maker finished second, beaten by 1 3/4 lengths, and then Frankel skipped the Preakness with his horse. Early records are incomplete, but the Lukas-trained Commendable, in 2000, is believed to be the only horse to win the Belmont without having at least one start after the Derby.

The dawning Funny Cide-Empire Maker rivalry already reminds Zito and others of the battles that Sunday Silence and Easy Goer had in 1989. Sunday Silence will be remembered as the survivor from those showdowns, winning the Breeders' Cup Classic and being voted horse of the year. But in the Belmont, Easy Goer won by eight lengths and spoiled Sunday Silence's Triple Crown bid.

Pat Day, who rode Easy Goer, is aboard Ten Most Wanted in today's six-horse field. Ten Most Wanted, winner of the Illinois Derby, was the so-called wise-guy horse in the Kentucky Derby, but ran ninth at 6-1 odds. He's 10-1, the fourth choice, on the Belmont morning line. The first three on the official line are Funny Cide, even money; Empire Maker, 6-5, and Dynever, 5-1.

While Tagg, Frankel and Lukas, who prepped Scrimshaw at Churchill Downs, had one eye on the weather forecast and the other on the workout clipboard in recent weeks, Wally Dollase trained Ten Most Wanted in sunny Southern California and shipped him here early this week. Dollase said that Ten Most Wanted was squeezed by horses on both sides leaving the gate in the Derby, and came out of the race with a sore back.

"Pat said he couldn't believe how bad he ran, and that was the reason," Dollase said. Ten Most Wanted has been treated by an equine chiropractor and worked five furlongs in a sharp :59 3/5 at Hollywood Park on Monday.

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