06/30/2005 12:00AM

Funny Cide at crossroads

Bill Denver/Equi-Photo
Funny Cide's performance in Saturday's Suburban Handicap will go far in determining whether he still belongs in Grade 1 company.

ELMONT, N.Y. - With Eddington having joined Ghostzapper in retirement, the handicap division has openings in its penthouse. Perhaps a former champion is ready to step up and fill the void.

Funny Cide, the dual-classic winner and champion 3-year-old of 2003, enters Saturday's $500,000 at Belmont Park at a crossroads in his career. He has won only 3 of 14 starts since taking the 2003 Preakness, one of the wins coming in last fall's Jockey Club Gold Cup. His first two starts this year have been poor, but both came with excuses. Funny Cide caught slop when fourth in the Pimlico Special. He was checked hard entering the far turn when fifth (placed fourth) in the Brooklyn Handicap.

The Suburban, which drew a field of eight, gives Funny Cide the chance to run at his favorite track and distance (1 1/4 miles). Mother Nature is even promising a break in the humidity for a horse that doesn't like oppressive heat. Finally, Funny Cide gets a switch to Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey.

Simply stated, it's put-up time for Funny Cide.

"We go into this race thinking this is going to tell us where to go from here,'' said Robin Smullen, assistant to trainer Barclay Tagg and Funny Cide's exercise rider. "Is he still a Grade 1 horse or not? Who knows? If he doesn't run well in this race we probably will not pursue Grade 1's unless they come up very, very easy. But he's doing very well and hopefully he'll run well.''

Funny Cide likely will vie for favoritism with Pollard's Vision, the Pimlico Special runner-up. The defection of Eddington because of injury prompted several horses to be entered, including Offlee Wild, who finished sixth as the favorite in the Pimlico Special. The Suburban will be one of four stakes televised live by ESPN on the "Road to the World Thoroughbred Championships'' beginning at 4 p.m. Eastern.

Tagg and Smullen have changed Funny Cide's training routine since the Brooklyn. Instead of galloping Funny Cide counterclockwise - and having him train too fast - Smullen has been jogging him clockwise for up to 3 1/2 miles a day. On Thursday, Funny Cide blew out three furlongs in 35.64 seconds over Belmont's main track.

Smullen was surprised that Funny Cide was so far off the early pace in the Brooklyn. She hopes that Bailey will have Funny Cide in his customary stalking position on Saturday. Funny Cide breaks from post 5.

The Suburban pace figures to be set by Record Buster, a son of Alphabet Soup who makes his stakes debut after winning his first three starts. He is trained by Bobby Frankel.

"If he can get an easy lead, he might hang around for a while,'' Frankel said. "As he stretched out, he won easier.''

Record Buster will break from the rail under 113 pounds and Javier Castellano.

Pollard's Vision is a multiple Grade 3 winner who comes off a solid second-place finish in the Grade 1 Pimlico Special. He is the Suburban starting highweight at 118 pounds and will break from post 3 under John Velazquez.

"I thought he took the worst of it in the Pimlico Special in terms of trip,'' trainer Todd Pletcher said. "He could never get to the outside, which is where he prefers to be, and the better part of the track were the middle paths and we were on the inside. Still, going a mile and three-sixteenths he was finishing, and I think a mile and a quarter is well within his scope.''

The connections of Offlee Wild believe the horse didn't handle the track in the Pimlico Special. Before that race, Offlee Wild had won three of his previous four starts, including a head victory over Funny Cide in last year's Massachusetts Handicap. Sir Shackleton, Evening Attire, Tap Day, and Runaway Russy complete the field.

The field

Suburban Handicap
Purse: $500,000; 1 1/4 miles; Grade 1

1Record BusterJ. Castellano1135-1
2Runaway RussyP. Fragoso11120-1
3Pollard's VisionJ. Velazquez1187-2
4Offlee WildE. Prado1164-1
5Funny CideJ. Bailey1173-1
6Evening AttireJ. Chavez11510-1
7Tap DayE. Coa11512-1
8Sir ShackletonR. Bejarano1169-2

* Odds by Art Gropper
* Television: Saturday, 4-6 p.m. Eastern, ESPN