04/16/2004 12:00AM

Funny Cide book doesn't grab the track

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NEW YORK - As the 130th Kentucky Derby approaches, does the American public still care enough about the winner of the 129th to read an entire book about him?

That is literally the $1 million question accompanying the publication next week of a book with more than 12 authors and a 25-word-title: "Funny Cide: How a horse, a trainer, a jockey, and a bunch of high school buddies took on the sheiks and blue bloods . . . and won." A million was the reported size of the advance paid to the authors, who are listed on the title page as "The Funny Cide Team," and, in smaller print, "with Sally Jenkins," a Washington Post reporter and the as-told-to writer of inspirational sports books by bicycler Lance Armstrong.

The book has a gargantuan first printing of 250,000 copies, a bold press run reflecting the hope that the book will more closely emulate the success of "Seabiscuit" than the average racing or sports title. Just as Funny Cide is a likeable horse but as yet no Seabiscuit on the racetrack, "Funny Cide" is largely pleasant reading but seems likely to fall short of "Seabiscuit" as a literary success.

It is at its best when it stays away from horse racing, which is not as severe a criticism as it may sound. The first two-thirds of the book deal with Funny Cide and his handlers before they get to the Kentucky Derby, and Jenkins tells the team's human-interest stories quite skillfully. She nimbly moves from one thread to another, tying together tales of the Sackets Harbor owners, the New York and Florida family farms where the gelding was raised, the trainers Barclay Tagg and Robin Smullen, and jockey Jose Santos.

While there are no startling new facts or scandalous details revealed, the stories are told entertainingly and fleshed out with solid rep-orting. These are all genuinely engaging people, and it is difficult not to root for them to succeed. Every racetrack has a dozen crews like Jack Knowlton and his Sackatoga cro-nies, and it's always nice to see a group of horseplayers who love the game hit the jackpot. The stories of Tagg's and Smullen's lifetimes around horses, and their long roads to each other and Funny Cide, are particularly well told.

When Jenkins gets to the clearly unfamiliar territory of racing, however, she seems to abandon her reportorial eye and instead leans on contrived sportswriting hype, selling rather than telling a story. As the saga reaches Churchill Downs, the book begins to overreach and tries to make the horse and the people surrounding him into superheroes.

Jenkins says several times that if anyone but Tagg had trained Funny Cide, the gelding would have gone unnoticed at the back of a barn and never been given the chance to run in the Derby. This is just silly. Funny Cide was obviously a plausible Derby prospect after his second career start. Tagg is an admirable horsemen but not the only person who would connect the dots between a very fast 2-year-old and the Kentucky Derby.

Similarly, the made-for-primetime premise that Funny Cide was a scorned and obscure outsider whose success was spectacularly improbable is repeated again and again. The reporting degenerates into fiction:

"Funny Cide was either ignored or given no chance, picked to finish fourteenth or lower in the field of seventeen," Jenkins writes. Actually, he had plenty of support at 12-1 as the seventh choice in the betting. Then when he wins, she paints the racing world as being aghast and fearful for its future.

"The sport depended almost entirely on a popular Derby winner to boost interest and draw bettors to those windows. . . . But nobody had heard of this horse," she writes. In fact, the popularity of a Derby winner has no impact on industry business, and any previous lack of recognition is irrelevant the moment a horse wins the sport's marquee race.

It's hard to believe that all of the supposed co-authors wrote much of this or even read the manuscript carefully, given the number of racing-related errors they could have corrected. There is no "Chicago Derby"; Hialeah is not a "raceway"; Monarchos and Real Quiet were Kentucky-breds, not Florida-breds; there are over 400 graded stakes races a year, not 31; it's a Beyer Speed Figure, not a Beyer Index; and the Belmont Stakes is not "often" won by 70-1 shots because of its distance.

The book never mentions that Funny Cide didn't win another race last year after the Preakness and its concluding assessment of him is that "It would be left to the turf writers and handicappers to determine Funny Cide's exact place in racing history, but he would be remembered as one of the most surprising horses of the half-century." Unfortunately, while "Funny Cide" tells an amiable tale of a popular Derby winner, it never convinces us that there was anything all that surprising about him.