06/21/2004 12:00AM

Faded glory of two champions


NEW YORK - The reputations of Funny Cide and Azeri have in varying degrees taken some hits, and they suffered even more Saturday when both former champions lost races the betting public expected them to win.

Since his victory over a very weak field in the 2003 Preakness Stakes, Funny Cide's stock has fallen even sharper than the sales of Funny Cide beer (remember that?). And last month, on the kind of cool weather day at which Funny Cide is supposed to be at his best, the gelding proved that he isn't a top class miler, either, with an uncompetitive fifth in the Metropolitan Handicap.

But on Saturday, Funny Cide found the kind of race in the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk Downs that, if he still harbored aspirations to be even a marginal factor in the handicap division, he should have won. Despite Grade 2 status and a $500,000 purse, this Mass Cap attracted a field that was Grade 3 at best, largely because most of the leading members of the handicap division were in action just a week before in the Stephen Foster, Brooklyn Handicap, or Californian Stakes.

On top of that, Funny Cide had an absolutely dream trip in the Mass Cap, prompting a slow early pace set by The Lady's Groom. As it turned out, Funny Cide was life and death to win a photo for place with The Lady's Groom while being unable to outkick the previously unheralded Offlee Wild. Offlee Wild's previous claim to fame was a 27-1 upset victory in the 2003 Holy Bull Stakes, an effort that, despite many opportunities, he failed to run back to.

Offlee Wild is certainly not the first horse to show dramatic improvement after moving into the barn of Rick Dutrow Jr., and the Mass Cap was Offlee Wild's second straight win since doing just that. Still, in his first start for Dutrow, Offlee Wild won a second-level allowance race and for the first time earned a Beyer Speed Figure as high as 100. So, it wasn't like Funny Cide was losing to the second coming of Hindoo.

At least Funny Cide was competitive to lose by a head, although he should have been much more than merely competitive considering the company and the pace involved. Azeri wasn't even close to competitive in an alarmingly dreadful performance in the Odgen Phipps Handicap at Belmont Park.

While Funny Cide's reputation has taken a beating over the last year, it is only recently that Azeri's reputation has suffered. She lost the Humana Distaff at 3-5 on Derby Day at Churchill despite being hit with the whip 22 times in the stretch, then proved overmatched in her first venture against males in the Met Mile, finishing next to last of nine.

On Saturday, Azeri was back in with females (only three of them) and back at a distance at which she had been successful in eight of nine attempts. Not only that, but Azeri was also the only true front-runner in the small field. However, after coasting through a first quarter mile in 23.32 seconds, and then running hard through a second quarter in 22.41, Azeri could not hold the lead through a third quarter in a pokey 24.45. And then she quit to finish last of the four, beaten almost 12 lengths.

It wasn't like Azeri was run into the ground by another mare who also ran up the white flag, either. Sightseek is the one who pressed Azeri early. Sightseek actually narrowed the gap on Azeri through that quick second quarter, and she went on to win by just over three lengths, eased up.

Right after the Phipps, the "she didn't like the track" excuse was immediately invoked on Azeri's behalf, an excuse, by the way, that was always there for her people to use since her two most recent starts were her first on the East Coast, where the racing surfaces are apparently just so incredibly different from what Azeri has been used to. Of course, this excuse conveniently avoids the fact that when Azeri clinched her Horse of the Year title with a five-length win in the 2002 Breeders' Cup Distaff, she did so over an Arlington Park surface that is much more East Coast in composition that the West Coast tracks with which Azeri is more familiar.

In any case, it could be that Azeri gave all that she had left to give in the Apple Blossom in her first start this year, when she came back from near retirement and won over a solid field to earn a career-best Beyer of 112.

Or, it could well be that Laura de Seroux, who trained Azeri up until this year, knew precisely what she had all along. Maybe there was a good reason why de Seroux resisted all the calls for Azeri to stop beating up on the same patsies out West and to try something a little more difficult.