06/02/2003 12:00AM

Ex-Triple Crown riders like Funny Cide

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NEW YORK - Steve Cauthen and Jorge Velasquez, the Hall of Fame jockeys who fought through the 1978 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, know what it takes to win the Triple Crown. And they say Funny Cide has one of the best chances of any horse since 1978 to break the 25-year Triple Crown drought.

Cauthen, the rider of 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed, said on Monday that Funny Cide has run fast and fought off challenges in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, while beating legitimate horses. If Funny Cide can win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday - when he faces Empire Maker, the favorite and second-place finisher in the Derby, for a third time - no one can call Funny Cide lucky, Cauthen said.

"His times are good, and his Beyer Speed Figures are good," Cauthen said. "He's obviously a doer and a fighter. If he beats Empire Maker and all these other horses that are coming into the Belmont fresh, it will be as legitimate a Triple Crown winner as has come along."

Velasquez, who rode Pleasant Colony to wins in the 1981 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes but more famously ran second on Alydar behind Affirmed in all three 1978 Triple Crown races, said Funny Cide stands out in the Belmont field, Empire Maker included.

"If I had a chance to pick a horse out for the Belmont, I would choose to ride [Funny Cide]," Velasquez said. "He's going to be tough to beat."

Cauthen and Velasquez appeared together on Monday at Gallagher's Steak House in New York City for the unveiling of artwork by James Fiorentino commemorating the 1978 Triple Crown. Both riders are now retired, Velasquez since 1997 and Cauthen since 1993.

The friendly rivalry that endures to this day between Cauthen and Velasquez was evident at one point in the conversation, when Velasquez, recounting the Belmont Stakes in which Alydar lost by a head, drifted from his train of thought, turned to Cauthen for 10 seconds in silence, sighed, and said, "Stevie. Oh Stevie."

"It's all your fault," Velasquez said. Cauthen laughed.

Cauthen and Velasquez were good friends even before the 1978 Triple Crown. Cauthen, a teenage superstar who was named 1978 Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated, arrived in New York at the age of 16 in the summer of 1976, and Velasquez instantly took a liking to him.

"The guy was unbelievable," Velasquez said. "He was a kid, with the mentality of a 30-something-year-old."

Both riders also have personal reasons for rooting for Funny Cide in the Belmont. Cauthen's brother, Doug, is the president of WinStar Farm in Kentucky, where Funny Cide's sire, Distorted Humor, stands.

Velasquez said that he was rooting for Funny Cide in part because of the shared Hispanic background between himself and Funny Cide's rider, Jose Santos. Velasquez is from Panama, and Santos is from Chile.

"I wanted to be the first Latin American rider to win the Triple Crown," Velasquez said. "Jose's in a position to do that, so I hope he does."