07/30/2003 11:00PM

All aboard for the Funny Cide gang


OCEANPORT, N.J. - It's time to get back on the bus.

Eight weeks after their rollicking Triple Crown ride ended in the Belmont Stakes, the connections of Funny Cide, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, will pile into their yellow school busses and make their way to Monmouth Park for Sunday's $1 million Haskell Invitational, in which seven 3-year-olds were entered on Thursday morning.

"It's been eight weeks. We're happy to get back in the game," said Jack Knowlton, the managing partner of Sackatoga Stable, a partnership of 10 friends that owns Funny Cide. "We plan on bringing over 100 people. We've got two busses lined up, and we might need a third."

Knowlton, who spoke at Monmouth Park at the post-position draw on Thursday morning, jokingly refers to the school busses as the "yellow stretch limousines." That's not the only form of transportation bringing Funny Cide fans to Monmouth on Sunday. The bandwagon of the popular gelding is overflowing. He attracted a near-record crown to the Belmont Stakes, despite the miserable weather that day, and George Zoffinger, the president of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns Monmouth Park, predicted a record crowd for Sunday's race.

"I think we can beat the crowd record we set two years ago," Zoffinger said, referring to the 47,127 who came to see Point Given in the 2001 Haskell. Those who arrive may have to dodge raindrops; there is a possibility of storms or showers in the area on Sunday.

Post time for the Haskell is 5:42 p.m. Eastern time. It is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at 12:30. Admission gates open at 10:30 a.m. The Haskell can be seen live on ESPN2, in a telecast airing from 5 to 6 p.m. The sports authority is offering a unique double bet, combining Saturday's Hambletonian harness race at The Meadowlands with the Haskell on Sunday.

Funny Cide's group will arrive fortified. The Funny Cide Ventures company has been set up to capitalize on the regional popularity of the gelding, the first New York-bred to win the Kentucky Derby. Several products that seem to be taken from the pantry of a college dorm room - beer, wine, donuts, ice cream, candy, and hot sauce - all have been produced in partnership with Funny Cide Ventures.

"We'll be bringing some Funny Cide beer," Knowlton said Thursday.

There will be plenty to celebrate if Funny Cide can win the 1 1/8-mile Haskell. A victory would be worth $600,000 and set up a dream rematch between Funny Cide and Empire Maker, the Belmont winner, three weeks later in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, where Funny Cide is stabled and only a few miles from where he was born.

Funny Cide, who breaks from post five, has several worthy challengers in the Haskell. Peace Rules, who beat Funny Cide in the Louisiana Derby but then lost to him in both the Derby and Preakness, has been off for 10 weeks and has been training well at Saratoga for trainer Bobby Frankel, who also trains Empire Maker. Peace Rules will break from post one. He is in receipt of two pounds (123-121) from Funny Cide.

Sky Mesa, who returned from a nine-month layoff to run third in the Dwyer Stakes at Belmont on July 6, has a right to move forward off that race and also benefits from a 118-pound weight assignment, five pounds fewer than Funny Cide. He breaks from post two, just outside of Peace Rules.

"He should really like the surface at Monmouth," said John Ward Jr., who trains Sky Mesa with his wife, Donna. "It's a good draw for us. Peace Rules should go on out, and we should be right off the pace. I think it sets up really well. We get weight from a couple of them, and it's a true two-turn race."

Wild and Wicked, unbeaten after three starts, including the Ohio Derby, starts from post three. His trainer, Ken McPeek, said he is not concerned about Wild and Wicked's inexperience.

"He's had two nice races around two turns," McPeek said. "The biggest question is - Is he good enough? It's time to test him."

The field is completed by longshots Max Forever, Kool Humor, and Excessivepleasure.