12/30/2003 1:00AM

2003: From Funny Cide to 'Seabiscuit' - racing made headlines

Email
Horsephotos
The image of the right hand of Jose Santos stirred controversy nationwide soon after Funny Cide's victory in the Kentucky Derby.

One week after the Kentucky Derby, racing found itself the headline story around the country in newspapers and on television and radio. The movies came next, with the summertime release of a fanciful tale of a runner from yesteryear. If Thoroughbred racing ever wanted to cross over and become part of the public's mainstream consciousness, it got its wish in 2003.

There was the right hand of Jose Santos, aboard Funny Cide, being examined on ESPN and the nightly network newscasts as though it was behind the grassy knoll on the Zapruder film. There was jockey Gary Stevens in People magazine - named one of the 50 most beautiful people - sitting alongside Jeff Bridges on the "Charlie Rose Show," discussing his acting debut in the film "Seabiscuit."

The stories were, strangely, connected. Everybody loves an underdog, present or past.

Santos was part of the feel-good story of the spring, the whirlwind Triple Crown quest of Funny Cide. The 3-year-old Funny Cide was foaled in New York, far from the breeding palaces of Kentucky. He was gelded, a fate that had never before befallen a Derby and Preakness winner. He was owned by Sackatoga Stable, a group of workaday guys from upstate New York, most of whom had known each other since high school, and who arrived at the Triple Crown races in yellow school buses. And he was trained by Barclay Tagg, a veteran horseman who had never sought the spotlight, and whom the spotlight had never sought.

Funny Cide's notoriety exploded exponentially in the fortnight between the Derby and Preakness. A story in the Miami Herald, accompanied by an oblique still photo, insinuated that Santos might have carried an electrical buzzer in his right hand during the Derby. The unsubstantiated allegation was a titillating story for news outlets that usually shun racing to the same place as a crazy old uncle. For 48 hours, Santos had his credibility unnecessarily questioned, since any cursory examination of the videotape of the stretch run, or any number of other still photos, would have found the allegation preposterous.

There was an emotional catharsis when Funny Cide won the Preakness. Santos's wife, Rita, and son, Jose Jr., cried tears of joy, believing the victory was vindication. By the time he arrived at the Belmont Stakes, only five weeks after he burst into national consciousness, Funny Cide was the most popular horse in racing. More than 100,000 people braved a miserable deluge at Belmont Park to watch his attempt for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.

More than 60 years ago, racing's most popular horse was Seabiscuit, who rose from obscurity to become a sports hero of the late 1930's. Seabiscuit enjoyed a renaissance two years ago with the publication of a best-selling book, and the subsequent movie proved a pleasant summertime diversion for those not troubled by factual inaccuracies. "Seabiscuit" did allow racing to achieve broad, popular appeal. It had ticket sales of more than $120 million, and was a hot item once released on DVD nearing the holidays. The film's impact on the sport was debatable. Attendance spiked in the summer at Del Mar and Saratoga, but attendance declined in the fall at tracks nationwide. It did have at least one tangible impact, though. Many of the principals in "Seabiscuit," including impresario Steven Spielberg, bought a piece of the 3-year-old colt Atswhatimtalknbout, who finished fourth in the Derby.

Funny Cide faltered in his bid to sweep the Triple Crown. Empire Maker won the Belmont, setting the stage for a showdown with Funny Cide the second half of the year, but they never met again. Mineshaft roared to three straight Grade 1 victories in New York, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but was retired before the Breeders' Cup, a fate that befell a number of Eastern-based runners. Candy Ride won Del Mar's Pacific Classic in the premier performance of the year, but he, too, could not answer the bell for the Breeders' Cup.

Others, though, displayed their brilliance all year. Jockey Jerry Bailey and trainer Bobby Frankel each set records for purse earnings. Frankel won a record 25 Grade 1 stakes races, and Bailey won a record 70 stakes. At Saratoga, trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez set meet records for victories. Trainer Richard Mandella had an outstanding year. He will have one certain champion in Halfbridled, and has another potential champion in Action This Day. Those 2-year-olds were two of Mandella's record-setting four winners in the Breeders' Cup races. Jockey Patrick Valenzuela was the leading rider at all five major meetings in Southern California, a feat accomplished just once previously, in 1983 by Chris McCarron. Julie Krone finished second to Valenzuela at Del Mar, but her successful comeback made her the most popular racing figure on the West Coast. Russell Baze rode 400 winners for the 11th time in the last 12 years.

Those who displayed brilliance in their careers - champions Precisionist and Dance Smartly, the jockey Mike Smith, and the late trainer Sonny Hine - became the newest members of the Hall of Fame. Still on the outside looking in is trainer King Leatherbury, who won his 6,000th race.

Records were set at auction. A 2-year-old by Sea of Secrets, subsequently named Diamond Fury, sold for $2.7 million to owner Charles Fipke, who gave the colt to Bob Baffert to train. The mare Cash Run, in foal to Storm Cat, sold for $7.1 million. A weanling colt by Storm Cat sold for $2.4 million. Yearling sales at Saratoga in August and Keeneland in September also found the top of the market surprisingly robust.

Controversy was not in short supply. The strangest race of the year might have been the Arlington Million, in which Storming Home took a sharp, right-hand turn near the shadow of the wire and dislodged Stevens right into the path of much of the rest of the field. The budding movie star was spun about like a rag doll, and though he punctured a lung, returned weeks later.

Owner Michael Gill and trainer Mark Shuman obliterated the Gulfstream Park record for wins in a season, but became pariahs because of their aggressive claiming tactics and questionable methods, most disturbing the amputation - by one of their veterinarians - of the damaged leg of a horse of theirs who had perished on the track. A book by investigative reporter Gerald Posner claimed that Ahmed bin Salman, the late Saudi Arabian prince who campaigned as The Thoroughbred Corporation before his death in July 2002, was a clandestine supporter of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden's terrorist organization.

The New York Racing Association was fined $3 million after a lengthy investigation by the state attorney general that focused on money laundering perpetrated by members of the mutuel department. In the midst of the investigation, NYRA president Terry Meyocks resigned. California had its woes, with dwindling attendance at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park and continued stress on trainers facing costly workers' compensation insurance rates. Fair Grounds declared bankruptcy after a ruling that it had underpaid horse owners, and Suffolk Downs canceled the Massachusetts Handicap for one year.

The three men - Glen DaSilva, Derrick Davis, and Chris Harn - who tried to hijack the Breeders' Cup Pick Six of 2002 were sentenced, though racing officials decried their punishment as lenient. Players continued to be frustrated by significant odds fluctuations after races had began, a problem racing officials ascribed to dated software rather than nefarious gamblers. A controversial betting outfit in South Dakota, Racing Services, was found to be grossly in arrears in paying state taxes, and owner Susan Bala was ousted. Jockey Norberto Arroyo found himself in prison for 39 days after being convicted of second-degree assault for a pool hall fight. It was a brutal winter for him, and for Aqueduct, Oaklawn Park, and Turfway Park, all of which had numerous weather-related cancellations. An ice storm smacked central Kentucky in February. Too cold, then too hot. A summer heat wave overloaded the East Coast electrical grid on

Aug. 14, causing a massive power outage that impacted racetracks in the Northeast, and fires ringed Southern California the weekend of the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.

Racing suffered numerous profound losses in 2003. Bill Shoemaker and the riding great whose record he broke, John Longden, both died. Laffit Pincay Jr., who passed Shoemaker to become the world's winningest rider, retired after breaking his neck in a March spill at Santa Anita. Another classy Hall of Famer, Eddie Delahoussaye, retired as the result of a fall in August 2002 at Del Mar.

In addition to Shoemaker and Longden, death claimed former jockeys Jimmy Nichols and Wayne Wright, trainers Sunshine Calvert, Gene Cilio, Charles Hadry, Harold Rose, Joe Trovato, and Barney Willis; owners and breeders William Bancroft, Zelda Cohen, Henryk de Kwiatkowski, Scott Dudley, Ed Gaylord, Elmer and Harriet Heubeck, Jack Hoover, Kay Jeffords, William T. Pascoe III, Nathan Scherr, Farid Sefa, Joe Taylor, Jeanne Vance, Robert Walter, and Mary Lou Wootton; racetrack executives Joseph Carney, Marie Krantz, and Mervin Muniz; bloodstock agent Packy McMurry; longtime Calumet Farm employee Margaret Glass; racecaller Dick Riley; photographer Jerry Frutkoff; journalists Bob Adair, John Crittenden, John Harrell, Leon Rasmussen, Marvin Root, Vic Thornton, and Robert Via; and Harry "The Horse" Tendler, a long-time press aide in Maryland and then Florida.

Pincay and Delahoussaye were joined in retirement by Daily Racing Form executive columnist Joe Hirsch, steeplechase jockeys Arch Kingsley and Blythe Miller, and Claiborne Farm manager John Sosby, whose pitch-perfect drawl graces the Kentucky Derby Museum's moving video presentation.

A staggering number of top-class horses died, but the most heart-wrenching death apparently happened in 2002. Ferdinand, the 1986 Derby winner, was found by a dogged reporter based in Japan to have been callously slaughtered. The story echoed that of Exceller, who, like Ferdinand, was trained by the late Charlie Whittingham. Belmont Stakes winner Temperence Hill, who had been at stud in Thailand, was reported dead, also apparently having died in 2002.

Spectacular Bid, whom Shoemaker said was the best horse he had ridden, died at age 27, 23 years after his sublime 1980 Horse of the Year campaign. Also passing were the mare Lady's Secret, the 1986 Horse of the Year; Derby winner Sunny's Halo; classic winners Aloma's Ruler, Creme Fraiche, and Little Current; the sires Allen's Prospect, Anees, Answer Lively, Chester House, Desert Wine, Fly So Free, Notebook, Old Trieste, Proud Birdie, Sandpit, Shelter Half, Skywalker, and Smarten; and the mares Glorious Song, Kelley's Day, Maplejinsky, Ms. Eloise, Northern Sunset, Our Mims, Outstandingly, Stick to Beauty, Too Chic, Wayward Lass, Wild Applause, Wings of Grace, and Ubetshedid.

As for the racing, here's a look back at 2003, division by division.

Three-year-old males

Funny Cide grabbed the headlines, but Empire Maker bested him twice in three meetings. Empire Maker won the Wood Memorial, Funny Cide took the Derby, and Empire Maker won the Belmont. Even though Funny Cide failed to win the Belmont Stakes, there was a Triple Crown winner. Oh, Canada. Wando swept the Queen's Plate, Prince of Wales, and Breeders' Stakes. Peace Rules, the Derby third-place finisher, won the Blue Grass and Haskell Invitational. Strong Hope captured five straight races, including the Jim Dandy against Empire Maker. Ten Most Wanted finished second in the Belmont, but later won the Travers and Super Derby.

Older male

This was the deepest, most exciting division of the year. Mineshaft, the early favorite to be named Horse of the Year, blossomed after being repatriated from Great Britain. He captured four Grade 1 races, won seven times overall, and never finished worse than second in nine starts. Perfect Drift upset Mineshaft in the Stephen Foster, then beat Congaree in the Kentucky Cup Classic, but finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, when a victory might have made him Horse of the Year. Congaree was a throwback to the hearty horses of yesteryear. He won five times, including Grade 1 races ranging from seven furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, while racing in California, Kentucky, and New York. Milwaukee Brew joined John Henry as the only two-time winners of the Santa Anita Handicap. Candy Ride, imported from Argentina, won all three of his starts, on both turf and dirt, and is now 6 for 6 overall. Medaglia d'Oro was another who did not perform often but dazzled when he did. He won the Strub, Oaklawn Handicap, and Whitney, and finished second in the Pacific Classic and Breeders' Cup Classic. Pleasantly Perfect capped Mandella's singularly sensational Breeders' Cup Day with his late-running victory in the Classic. Fleetstreet Dancer skipped over a sloppy track to capture the Japan Cup Dirt.

Older Filly or Mare

Azeri dominated in the West, Sightseek in the East, but they never met. Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, ran her winning streak to 11 for trainer Laura de Seroux before a dull effort in the Lady's Secret. Then all the backstage tension between de Seroux and owner Michael Paulson finally came to the fore. Azeri was sent to Kentucky with a tendon injury that de Seroux said should force her retirement. But two months later, Paulson said she had recovered. He put Azeri back in training and sent her to D. Wayne Lukas. Sightseek lost her first three starts of the year, all in California, then won four straight Grade 1 races in New York before returning to California to fail at 3-5 in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Sightseek was part of a one-two punch for Frankel, who also had Ruffian winner Wild Spirit. Adoration led from start to finish in the BC Distaff for a 40-1 surprise. Starrer was the best in the country early in the year - she beat Sightseek in the Santa Margarita for her second Grade 1 victory - but she never raced after March. Got Koko swept the La Canada Series.

Three-year-old fillies

The wealth was spread here. Composure won the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks, but never raced after March. Bird Town took the Kentucky Oaks and Acorn, but did not win a race the second half of the year. Island Fashion was well beaten in the Kentucky Oaks, but later beat Bird Town in the Alabama and closed out her season with a devastating victory in the La Brea. The Alabama ended a five-race winning streak for Spoken Fur, who captured the Mother Goose and Coaching Club American Oaks. Elloluv won the Ashland, and later was second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, but lost her two meetings against Composure. Buy the Sport pulled off a 48-1 shocker in the Gazelle. Mighty mite Lady Tak won the Fair Grounds Oaks, but showed her best asset with a powerful victory sprinting in the Test, when she avenged Kentucky Oaks and Acorn losses to Bird Town. Six Perfections ran only once in this country, and only on turf, but beat the boys in the Breeders' Cup Mile.

Male turf horse

High Chaparral and Johar finished in the first dead heat for win in Breeders' Cup history when they hit the wire in the Turf, just ahead of international superstar Falbrav. It was the best race on an outstanding Breeders' Cup card. Storming Home became best known for his frightening antics in the Arlington Million, but minded his manners in the Whittingham and Clement Hirsch. Sulamani, who backed into the Million victory, won the Turf Classic after bobbling noticeably on the final turn. Balto Star won the United Nations, Red Smith, and McKnight; Phoenix Reach the Canadian International; and Denon the Manhattan. The best middle-distance runners were old man Redattore (who won the Shoemaker Mile, Citation, and San Gabriel), Perfect Soul (Shadwell Turf Mile), Special Ring (Eddie Read), and Touch of the Blues (Atto Mile).

Female turf horse

Six Perfections (Mile) and Islington (Filly and Mare Turf) shipped over from Europe and were haughtily dismissive of the oppressive heat when scoring Breeders' Cup victories. Heat Haze was the best American-based runner. She took the Beverly D. and the Matriarch, but was upset by Dimitrova in the Flower Bowl and Voodoo Dancer in the Diana. In addition to Heat Haze, Frankel won major races with Megahertz (Mabee/Ramona) and Tates Creek (Gamely and Yellow Ribbon), We did not see enough of Zimbabwe sensation Ipi Tombe, who beat the boys in the Dubai Duty Free, but was retired after winning Churchill's Locust Grove.

Two-year-old colt

Action This Day rallied to win a Breeders' Cup Juvenile that was more notable for who did not show up. The winners of the Champagne (Birdstone), Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (Eurosilver), Norfolk (Ruler's Court), and Hopeful (Silver Wagon) all were kept out of the race, either because their connections wanted to point for a race six months later (the Derby) or because they did not want to travel to California. Chapel Royal was the early-season sensation, and Cuvee took over in the late summer, but both were beaten on Breeders' Cup Day. Lion Heart won the Hollywood Futurity to complete a 3-for-3 season, Cactus Ridge was unbeaten in four starts, all in the Midwest; Tapit was a powerful winner of the Laurel Futurity; and Sir Oscar dominated the stallion series in Florida.

Two-year-old filly

Halfbridled was perfect in four starts. She saved the best for last, overcoming post 14 going 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. She also captured the Del Mar Debutante and Oak Leaf for the team of Mandella and Krone. Ashado, second in the Breeders' Cup, won the Spinaway and Demoiselle for Pletcher, who also won the Matron with Marylebone. Hollywood Story was rewarded for chasing the very best all year when she won the Hollywood Starlet.

Sprinter

Aldebaran used his breathtaking late rush to capture the San Carlos, Met Mile, and Forego, but found six furlongs too sharp, and was nowhere near the wickedly fast Cajun Beat when they hit the wire in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Congaree beat Aldebaran in the Carter in his lone race at less than one mile. Beau's Town was the king of the Midwest, then flashed his heels at Del Mar in the Bing Crosby. Ghostzapper finished furiously to take the Vosburgh. Avanzado won the Ancient Title and was second in the Dubai Golden Shaheen. The former claimer Shake You Down won five straight starts after moving to Scott Lake's barn, then finished third in the Breeders' Cup. Memories of Da Hoss came rushing back when Michael Dickinson brought A Huevo back from a four-year absence to win the De Francis Dash. Two of the all-time greats, Kona Gold and Xtra Heat, were retired, but not before adding stakes wins to their lengthy resumes.

Steeplechaser

McDynamo won three Grade 1 races, including the Colonial Cup and an overpowering 15 1/4-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Steeplechase, to reign supreme.