05/19/2003 11:00PM

Funny Cide and his crew in high demand


NEW YORK - The connections of Funny Cide spent Tuesday afternoon meeting the New York media during a lunch event organized by Gallagher's Steak House, a midtown Manhattan restaurant known for its racing connections.

Amid the constant click of camera shutters, jockey Jose Santos, trainer Barclay Tagg, and assistant trainer Robin Smullen posed with a trio of mounted New York City policemen, signed autographs, and held an informal news conference at the off-Broadway restaurant, which was owned by the late Thoroughbred owner and breeder Jerome Brody and is decorated with pictures of racing greats.

The event underscored that Funny Cide's quest for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes on June 7 is perhaps going to be the most heavily scrutinized in recent history because of the horse's multiple connections to New York.

Funny Cide is a New York-bred gelding owned by a 10-person partnership of former high school buddies from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., ridden by a Chilean-born jockey who has spent almost his whole career in New York, and trained by a soft-spoken but confident couple who base their operation at Belmont Park nearly the entire year.

Lew Titterton, one of the partners in Sackatoga Stable, said the response to Funny Cide in New York has been "absolutely phenomenal," especially upstate, where most of the owners live.

"People are just utterly turned on by this thing," Titterton said. "I think they need something at this point in time. These are difficult times right now, and having this role model is, well, great. It would be nice if we win the Triple Crown, but even if we don't win it, the role model is still there."

Titterton and other partners were scheduled to shoot an "I Love New York" commercial at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, and all this week the partners have meetings scheduled with merchandisers who are eager to capitalize on the popularity of Funny Cide, according to Jack Knowlton, the managing partner of Sackatoga.

"Honestly, if we win the Triple Crown, IMG is out there," Knowlton said, referring to the powerful sports marketing company.

On Friday, Knowlton said, a website devoted entirely to Funny Cide will be launched at www.funny-cide.com. Fans will be able to buy T-shirts, hats, and other merchandise devoted to the horse, Knowlton said. Demand so far has been overwhelming, and, in some cases, from surprising sources, Knowlton said.

"I got a call from a shop the other day, and this guy was telling me, 'Look, I don't care if you produce the product, I don't care if I produce it, whatever. Just get me the Funny Cide hats because I've got hundreds of e-mails here asking me where they are,' " Knowlton said.

"And this was a guy in Kentucky."