05/23/2003 12:00AM

Crown or not, he's a keeper


NEW YORK - What's the best thing about Funny Cide - that he's going for the Triple Crown or that he's a gelding? There's a strong case that while the former will make the next two weeks an exciting time for the racing industry, the latter could prove far more rewarding to the sport for years to come.

Pretend for a moment that Funny Cide had not been gelded. His owners, the Sackatoga Stable partners, would be fielding eight-digit stallion-syndication offers right now.

"Money aside, I'm kind of glad we don't have to make that kind of a decision," Jack Knowlton, Sackatoga's managing partner, said earlier this week. "Given our backgrounds and what that kind of money could mean to us, I don't know what would happen."

The smart thing for them to do, really the only thing, would have been to take one of those offers before the Belmont Stakes and put themselves in a no-lose position. Such an arrangement would almost certainly have called for Funny Cide to be retired by year's end. An intervening loss or two might have made him an even earlier retiree. Instead, the biggest payday Funny Cide can ever have is the $5 million Visa bonus he will earn if he wins the Belmont.

Funny Cide's lack of reproductive potential is great for racing and ultimately more important than whether he wins or loses the Belmont. No racehorse this famous and accomplished has ever faced the prospect of such a long racing career. Racing's economics devour its young, unless they're worthless in the breeding shed.

There's a good argument to be made that the sport needs another Kelso or John Henry more than another Affirmed. If any of the eight horses since Affirmed who were in position to win the Crown had actually won it, how would racing be better off today? The prospect of a Funny Cide coming back year after year is far more appealing.

The lack of an early-retirement plan does not, however, mean that Sackatoga will not face other temptations that may not be in the horse's or the game's best interests. Regardless of what happens in the Belmont, he will be the most sought-after marquee name in the sport this year, and every track operator in America already is plotting to lure him. A bunch of stakes races this summer are sure to be boosted in value, and various goofy bonus schemes and personal-appearance fees are probably not far behind.

There's a fine line between sharing a beloved racehorse with the public and doing what's best for the horse. The example of Seattle Slew 26 years ago remains instructive. After the unbeaten colt swept the Triple Crown, trainer Billy Turner wanted to give him a well-deserved rest but was overruled in favor of chasing riches in California. Seattle Slew suffered his first loss, beaten 16 lengths in the Swaps, and the trip began a downward spiral that sidelined him for 10 months.

Funny Cide deserves even more careful handling. While Seattle Slew was never going to race past his 4-year-old season, Funny Cide could be running when he's a true senior citizen. Even if he loses a step or two in his dotage, he could be a latter-day Fourstardave, loving life and winning New York-bred races at Saratoga every year.

Having Barclay Tagg and Robin Smullen as his handlers gives him the best possible chance at such longevity. On the basis of past performance and disposition, Tagg is a great bet to insist at every juncture on doing what's right for the horse. The trainer has waited and dreamed of a horse like this for 40 years, and his best runners have been late-bloomers given an extra helping of patience and caution.

All of our other recent Derby-Preakness winners have had only a first act to their careers. Funny Cide could have three: Triple Crown hopeful in his youth, Forego-like handicap horse in middle age, national treasure at the end of a long career. (You even wonder, given Tagg's roots and background, whether the trainer might even like to try him over the jumps some day.) Such a durable career is of course a longshot, given the fragility of all racehorses, geldings included, but it's a longshot worth dreaming about and giving every chance to succeed.