08/20/2004 12:00AM

Fans finally see local hero run


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - For being one of the most talked about horses at Saratoga last year, Funny Cide also was one of the least visible.

Finally on Sunday, Funny Cide's fans will have the opportunity to see last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner in action for the first time at Saratoga in the $250,000 Saratoga Breeders' Cup.

Funny Cide, a New York-bred foaled at McMahon of Saratoga Thoroughbreds, located a few miles from the track, trained but didn't race here in 2002 and 2003. His career debut came in the fall at Belmont Park as a 2-year-old. Last year, after Funny Cide lost his bid for the Triple Crown to Empire Maker in the Belmont Stakes, a much-anticipated rematch between those rivals was to take place in the $1 million Travers. That showdown never materialized, because setbacks kept both Funny Cide and Empire Maker out of the Travers.

Funny Cide's fans got to see him when he was paraded in the Saratoga paddock last year on Aug. 13. A large crowd that huddled together in a driving rainstorm was forced to wait nearly 30 minutes to see Funny Cide, whose arrival was delayed because of the violent weather. Upon his entrance, he was greeted by resounding cheers from the soggy but exuberant crowd, many of whom were toting colorful signs in Funny Cide's honor.

The fans who weren't at the track that day but needed a Funny Cide fix had to settle for canvassing the Funny Cide Store in downtown Saratoga Springs for souvenirs, or drinking wine and beer named for the local hero.

The Funny Cide Store has since closed, and the beer and wine are marked down, but Funny Cide's owners, Sackatoga Stable, are as enthusiastic as ever, and they say they believe Funny Cide's fans share their enthusiasm.

Funny Cide is owned by a 10-person partnership, and four of his owners, including the stable's managing partner, Jack Knowlton, have homes in or near Saratoga.

"The first year [Funny Cide] was at Saratoga, nobody knew about him, and last year it was a big disappointment not to run in the Travers," Knowlton said. "It looks like the third [year] will be the charm. He is a local horse, no question about that. People in Saratoga and the Capital District see him as their horse. He has a big fan base."

Dennis Brida, the executive director of the locally based New York Thoroughbred Breeders Association, said he believes Funny Cide's presence could draw up to 10,000 more people than a typical Sunday at the track.

"He is Saratoga's horse," Brida said. "Last year, Funny Cide made the front page of the Saratogian more than the mayor. I think when people see his name in the entry box, they will show up."

Funny Cide, who won the 3-year-old champion championship last year, has had a solid 2004 campaign, even if it hasn't come close to his achievements last year. Trained throughout his career by Barclay Tagg, Funny Cide has a record of 2-1-3 in seven starts this year. In addition to winning his first start of 2004 in a Gulfstream Park allowance race, Funny Cide won the Grade 3 Excelsior Breeders' Cup in April at Aqueduct. He also finished second in the Grade 2 Massachusetts Handicap and was third in the Grade 1 Suburban and Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap.

Knowlton said he hopes the Saratoga Breeders' Cup will be followed by a prep race in the fall for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Lone Star Park on Oct. 30.

"With the Smarty party over, if our horse gets a couple of wins, I think it would generate renewed excitement in Funny Cide," Knowlton said.