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Randy Harvey

Story Did Have Happy Ending ... for Frankel

June 08, 2003|Randy Harvey

ELMONT, N.Y. — Cut!

Get Spielberg on the phone. Scorsese. Doesn't anyone know how to end one of these horse racing sagas? Do we have to wait for the movie "Seabiscuit" for someone to get it right? Work with me, horses.

Funny Cide was supposed to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years and a story for the ages. His owners are Andy the sheriff, Floyd the barber, Goober the mechanic and some other former high school classmates from upstate New York who pooled the money in their cookie jars to buy cheap horses. They got Funny Cide for $75,000, which in the sport of kings is like buying a Yugo.

They hired a trainer named Barclay Tagg, who has the disposition of a rattlesnake. He didn't have much to smile about before this year. In more than three decades in the business, he had never gotten closer to a Triple Crown race than watching the Preakness from the top of his barn at Pimlico. He was so low in the pecking order at that track that he had to move his horses out of his barn to make room for the Clydesdales when they came to town.

Funny Cide's jockey, Jose Santos, had to survive an inquiry from the stewards in the Kentucky Derby, because a newspaper questioned whether he used a buzzer to prod the horse down the stretch. Then, in one of the races on the undercard leading to the Belmont Stakes, Santos' horse veered sharply out of the gate, almost leaving his jockey behind.

On top of all that, Funny Cide is a New York-bred gelding. New Yorkers make good policemen. They make good firemen. They do not make good thoroughbreds.

But this one was trying to become only the 12th Triple Crown winner, and he was trying to do it in front of an announced 101,864 at Belmont Park who braved a driving, dreary rain to cheer one of their own.

Think what Frank Capra could have done with this story.

*

Tagg complained afterward, after the third-place finish behind Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted, that Funny Cide didn't like the condition of the track.

"You never know what they're going to do in the mud," Tagg said.

Funny Cide won the Preakness in mud, but that track was Le Mans compared to this one. This track was listed as sloppy, which didn't begin to describe it on a day that New York Racing Assn. President Terry Meycocks said "had to be one of the worst weather days for any major day in the history of thoroughbred racing."

Further complicating matters for Funny Cide, he developed a case of stage fright. He spent so much nervous energy before the race that he had nothing left down the long stretch of the 1 1/2-mile race. It's one thing to win off-Broadway, in Kentucky and Maryland, another entirely to win in New York.

Jerry Bailey, who rode Empire Maker, said he knew as soon as the horses reached the backstretch that Funny Cide was history, though not in the sense that those who wanted to see a Triple Crown winner had hoped.

"Funny Cide had already locked on to Jose pretty well," Bailey said. "This is what I want. I want Funny Cide locking on so he's not relaxed. I'll be able to pounce on him when I turn the backside. That's how it worked."

What kind of script is that?

*

One of New York's own did win, after all. Bobby Frankel, Empire Maker's trainer, is Brooklyn-bred.

That was of little consolation to the crowd.

Although some of Frankel's dems and doses have been baked away by close to 30 years in the Southern California sun, he's as brash as ever.

He said last week he wanted to play the villain's role.

"I hope everybody hates me after the race," he said. "It means I did my job well."

He got his wish, all of them. When he entered the winner's circle with Empire Maker and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the crowd booed.

"That wasn't for me," Frankel said, joking afterward. "I thought it was for the mayor."

Frankel has won the Eclipse Award as the nation's best trainer four times, including the last three, but this was his first Triple Crown win. He didn't make much of that, believing he was overdue. He had finished second in the Belmont twice and was favored in this year's Kentucky Derby with Empire Maker, who lost by 1 3/4 lengths to Funny Cide.

He blamed himself for that loss, saying he was so confident of victory that he didn't train Empire Maker as hard as he should have. He wasn't worried about Funny Cide then, and he wasn't worried about Funny Cide on Saturday.

Asked if he felt any sentiment about depriving the horse racing world of another Triple Crown winner, he said, "You know what, I don't feel bad right now, to tell you the truth. I feel great, and I won the race, and that's what I wanted.

"I was really, really confident and thinking about the race all week long. I didn't think I could get beat, to be honest with you."

So there you have it. Another year, another unhappy ending for our hero. Since Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, nine horses have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to falter in the Belmont, the test of champions.

Doesn't anyone know how to write a Hollywood ending? If "Seabiscuit" ends like this, I'm asking for my money back.

Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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