Updated on 09/17/2011 11:42AM

Funny Cide: Gifted but not great

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ELMONT, N.Y. - After Funny Cide's defeat in the Belmont Stakes, trainer Barclay Tagg expressed mystification over his gelding's poor showing. Jockey Jose Santos blamed the muddy track. And most of the 101,864 people who came to Belmont Park hoping to hail a Triple Crown winner were surprised that the favorite didn't duplicate his authoritative victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

But it should not have come as a shock that Funny Cide finished third behind two good colts, Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted, in Saturday's race. Empire Maker's victory was hardly an upset at all.

Funny Cide had won the Derby with the aid of a perfect ground-saving trip while adversity befell some of his main rivals. He dominated in an unusually weak field in the Preakness. Because those had been the only two important stakes victories of his life, he had not conclusively proved himself before the Belmont. Plenty of handicappers considered Empire Maker to be the superior horse, and Empire Maker's no-nonsense trainer, Bobby Frankel, declared, "I didn't think I could get beat."

While the effect of the muddy track on Funny Cide is almost impossible to gauge, it does seem probable that the Belmont distance was too far for him. The son of a sprinter, he had seemingly outrun his pedigree when he won at 1 1/4 miles in the Derby, but the 1 1/2-mile Belmont distance is a different game entirely. Both Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted have pedigrees that are much better suited to that route.

Funny Cide's loss saddened many fans, some of whom booed Empire Maker and jockey Jerry Bailey when they entered the winner's circle. The gelding Funny Cide, his owners, and his jockey had generated a great deal of affection in the five weeks since the Derby. Many fans and leaders of the racing industry felt the emergence of a Triple Crown winner would be a boon for the sport.

But even though there was to be no Triple Crown, the Belmont was nevertheless an uplifting event, for it demonstrated that horse racing can still generate intense passion and public interest. Mainstream media of all types gave the race intense coverage; Funny Cide made page 1 of the New York tabloids. Fans thronged to Belmont on a miserable day, and many sat in the rain for as long as seven hours so that they could have a close-up view of the stretch run.

The excitement associated with the Belmont demonstrated how much the sport needs stars with whom fans can identify. One of the curses of the game has been the premature retirement of top horses to stud. That, of course, is not an issue with Funny Cide; he could conceivably continue to compete until he is 8 or 9, as great geldings in the past have done. And he will be a big attraction every time he runs. The Travers Stakes - which is expected to produce a rematch of Funny Cide, Empire Maker, and Ten Most Wanted - could be one of the biggest events in the storied history of Saratoga Race Course.

When Funny Cide meets his rivals again, it is reasonable to expect that he won't get his revenge. Even though his fans might argue that the Belmont defeat was because of the muddy track, to an excessively fast workout before the race, or to other mitigating factors, the primary explanation is probably that Empire Maker is the better horse. If that indeed is the case, racing fans should not mourn the fact that they didn't get to see history made Saturday.

The reason that the Triple Crown is so special, that it can draw 101,864 people to Belmont Park in the rain, is that it is so elusive. It has relentlessly foiled horses who are not in the class of Secretariat or Seattle Slew. If a lesser colt were to sweep the series (such as Real Quiet in 1998, Charismatic in 1999, or Funny Cide in 2003), the accomplishment would never again seem quite so extraordinary. Funny Cide is fast, versatile, gutsy, and beloved, but he did not deserve a place in the pantheon of the sport's all-time greats.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post