05/28/2003 11:00PM

And there's a horse race, too


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - This just in from a story in Thoroughbred Times:

"We've gotten to do so many things we never dreamed of doing. After the Derby we were honored by the governor and got a standing ovation from the state Legislature. We are going to meet Katie Couric; that's right, Katie Couric, before the Belmont. About the only thing that's left is 'W.' That's right, the president. If George W. Bush invites us to the White House to say, 'Hello,' and get our picture taken, that would be it; that would really say that we've made it. But, if I had to make the choice of meeting the president or winning the Triple Crown, I would say winning the Triple Crown."

- Sackatoga Stable partner J.P. Constance

The swirl of activity over the prospect of a Triple Crown winner after a quarter of a century of near misses reached a fever pitch today when a Belmont Park spokesman announced that the Belmont Stakes would be postponed one week to accommodate a June 7 visit to the White House by the Sackatoga Stable partnership, owners of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide.

The Belmont, in which Funny Cide will be trying to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to sweep the Triple Crown, already underwent a post-time change because of network television conflicts with such highly rated sports as men's senior golf and arena football.

"Don't worry," said Belmont media chief Glen Mathes. "We'll get this race in somehow. You have to understand just how popular this horse has become, him being from New York and all."

Indeed, the New York angle is believed to be, in some part, at the root of the White House invitation. A New York Republican Party operative pointed out that President Bush has just announced his candidacy for a second term, and that he lost the state by 1.7 million votes to Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in the 2000 general election, along with New York's 33 Electoral College votes.

"It doesn't take a political genius to figure it out," said the operative, whose request to have his name in the paper was refused. "If the president can get a leg up in New York by schmoozing with these horse people, more power to him. It wasn't his fault Karl Rove got the date wrong."

The postponement will give the Funny Cide phenomenon another week of momentum, while at the same time providing an opportunity for the Belmont Park main track to be drained after recent rains. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was being called in to consult.

"I know I said I'd rather win the Triple Crown than meet President Bush," said Sackatoga partner J.P. Constance, a former politician himself. "But heck, if we can do both, why not?"

In a press release from the office of managing partner Jackson Knowlton, the Sackatoga Stable members went on record stating that they also would prefer to win the Triple Crown rather than meet Bob Dylan, Carl Yastrzemski, Regis Philbin, Christiane Amanpour, David Hasselhoff, or the skinny dude with the beard on "elimiDATE," although there was a split vote on Keanu Reeves, Ray Bradbury, and Shakira.

Since Funny Cide won the Preakness to trigger the latest round of Triple Crown mania, the group of close friends involved in the Sackatoga partnership has been besieged with requests for interviews, special appearances, and even endorsements. Leading up to the Belmont Stakes, they will be featured as part of the "I ? NY" promotional campaign, highlighting their hometowns of Sackets Harbor and Saratoga Springs.

Negotiations are also in progress to replace their trademark yellow school bus with either a fleet of Hummer H2's or their own custom train car on Amtrak's Empire Service line. In addition, a local upstate beverage company has proposed a line of mildly alcoholic products to be called "Funny Cider."

Trainer Barclay Tagg, who has tried to maintain a low profile in the face of the Triple Crown media onslaught, was said to be quietly considering endorsement approaches from American Express ("You don't know me, but my horse just won the Triple Crown and now everyone can just deal with it.") and Barclays Bank, a British firm that promises to pay him in euros.

However, a source close to someone who once tried to talk with Tagg during training hours revealed that the inside track belongs to the ulcer medication Tagamet, with a proposed ad campaign featuring the trainer at the wheel of a high-powered sports car and the catchline: "Got gas? Step on it!"

Meanwhile, Funny Cide's jockey, Jose Santos, has been hired by the Miami Herald to conduct a newsroom seminar in Spanish-language skills.

"This is an important service I can provide for those who are challenged by the subtleties of the various accents encountered by non-Spanish-speaking members of the media culture," Santos said, although the Herald reported his statement as, "I am the Eggman. You are the Walrus. Koo-koo-ka-choo."