Updated on 09/17/2011 10:26AM

A dream trip made dream of glory a reality

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Racing fans annually hope that the Triple Crown series will produce an exciting new star, a horse who can stimulate public interest in the sport. Such dreams have not often materialized in recent years, and the outcome of the 129th Kentucky Derby quashed them again.

This year it was supposed to be Empire Maker who had the potential to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Trainer Bobby Frankel, a man not given to hyperbole, declared over and over that this was a great racehorse and that winning the Derby was his destiny. But Empire Maker delivered an unexceptional performance and lost to a group of rivals who are unexceptional - including the victorious Funny Cide.

When no horse in a race possesses superior talent, there is going to be a winner nevertheless. And the winner will usually be the horse who benefits from an easy trip. This was the case at Churchill Downs on Saturday. The racing gods were on the side of Funny Cide, and Jose Santos was on his back, delivering a perfect tactical ride. But if the race had developed in a slightly different way, or if the post positions had been shuffled, the second-, third- or fourth-place finisher could easily have earned a blanket of roses.

Funny Cide broke from post position 5, went to the rail, and secured a perfect striking position behind Peace Rules and Brancusi, who were dueling for the lead. When the leaders were enervated, Funny Cide went around Peace Rules to take command and then resisted the challenge of the favorite. In a 16-horse field, he lost almost no ground and barely encountered a straw in his path.

Fourth-place Atswhatimtalknbout found enough trouble to cost him the race. When he turned into the stretch, jockey David Flores lamented, "He was in behind a wall. I just couldn't get the room for him to run." After the California colt did find room, he accelerated powerfully, but too late. He had about two lengths' worth of trouble on the turn - the margin by which he was beaten.

Third-place Peace Rules didn't have trouble per se, but few horses ever win the Derby battling head and head for the lead on a fast pace. Peace Rules and Brancusi raced the first half-mile in 46.23 seconds and reached the six-furlong mark in 1:10.48, a pace that was fast enough to make Brancusi collapse and finish 16th. Despite these exertions, Peace Rules didn't surrender; his stablemate Empire Maker barely outfinished him for second place. When such a scenario develops in an ordinary race, and the horses come back for a rematch, handicappers know that the horse in the duel (Peace Rules) is the one to bet, and the successful stalker (Funny Cide) the one to bet against.

Second-place Empire Maker didn't have any trouble, but both his trainer and jockey were convinced that he was the superior horse. "I still think that my horse is much better than those other two," jockey Jerry Bailey declared in reference to Funny Cide and Peace Rules. Was he right? Maybe.

After breaking from post position 11, Empire Maker was forced to race wide around both turns. It is a rough rule of thumb that a horse loses one length for every path that he is removed from the rail around a turn. Thus, if Funny Cide was on the rail around the first turn, and Empire Maker was in the three path, the favorite was traveling an extra two lengths. Empire Maker's ground loss equaled more than the 1 3/4 lengths by which Funny Cide beat him.

This fact underscores an annual folly at the Derby, one that allows trainers to pick their post positions (after a random draw determines the order of selection). Trainers habitually shun inside posts, believing that their horses are less likely to be blocked if they start outside their rivals. This may be true, but they are almost assured of losing ground, and horses don't often win the Derby (or any other distance race) if they are forced to race wide around both turns. Frankel understands this truth, but he was confident - perhaps overconfident - that Empire Maker was good enough to race wide and still prevail. He was wrong.

If the horses had switched post positions, if Empire Maker had Funny Cide's trip and vice versa, Funny Cide probably would have finished fourth and Empire Maker would have a chance to sweep the Triple Crown.

Funny Cide is not going to win the Triple Crown. He would be no cinch to win a rematch over any of the first three horses behind him in the Derby. Even if Funny Cide should prevail at Pimlico, his sprint-oriented pedigree would likely doom him in the Belmont Stakes.

Still, Funny Cide does not deserve to be disdained as a fluky Derby winner. He showed great potential as a 2-year-old, winning all three of his starts. In his final prep race for the Derby, the Wood Memorial, he finished a half-length behind Empire Maker, though the winner appeared to be toying with him. The best Beyer Speed Figures coming into the Derby belonged to Empire Maker (111), Funny Cide (110) and Ten Most Wanted (110). I picked Ten Most Wanted, so he was doomed. With only Empire Maker to beat, all Funny Cide needed was a little racing luck. And he got it.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post