02/27/2004 12:00AM

Funny Cide has come full circle

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NEW ORLEANS - The outsiders still cheer loudly for Funny Cide. The doubters still knock him around. At this point, Barclay Tagg really isn't worried about either faction.

"I'm not concerned about any of that. I just want him to have a nice career. I want him to win some races," Tagg said.

Funny Cide won the 2003 Kentucky Derby, a populist Derby winner in the year of the movie "Seabiscuit." The celebrity hype machine kicked into gear, whirring around Funny Cide. The horse wasn't doing much talking, leaving his trainer, reticent and focused by nature, to field all questions during the heat of the Triple Crown. Funny Cide made it through the Preakness unscathed, but lost the Belmont to Empire Maker, anointed the Derby winner by many before he had even turned 3.

When Funny Cide finished third in the Haskell and ninth in the Breeders' Cup Classic to end his season, the skeptics howled. They were not silenced by Funny Cide's performance Feb. 7 in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap, just his third start against older horses, where Funny Cide proved no match for the 5-year-old Medaglia d'Oro, and finished third behind the lesser-known Seattle Fitz.

And so Funny Cide has come back to Fair Grounds, where he distinguished himself with a third-place finish last spring in the Louisiana Derby. He starts Sunday in the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap, a race that lacks Medaglia d'Oro, but little else. The fierce competition gives Funny Cide another chance to show that he can go as far as a 4-year-old as he did at age 3.

The problem is - and always has been - Funny Cide is difficult to gauge. His physical condition pleases Tagg, who said Funny Cide "looks great. He's carrying a lot of flesh, he's dappled all over. He couldn't be doing any better." But Funny Cide, as he was last season, continues to train at a breakneck pace. His last four workouts have been bullets, and Tagg said, "He's just about impossible to gallop right."

Funny Cide, strongly competitive, seems to be on "go" all the time, but he could not go with the two horses that beat him in the Donn. Tagg makes the valid point that the Donn was not Funny Cide's best race, and there's reason to believe he can improve Sunday.

"He might just need two good races to put everything into him," Tagg said.

That pattern has precedent. Funny Cide went from third in the Louisiana Derby to second in the Wood Memorial - and then won the Kentucky Derby.

Martin, Spanish Empire flourish together

Shane Sellers began riding regularly for Steve Asmussen early this year. Eddie Martin rarely rides for him. But it is Martin who has the mount on Spanish Empire on Sunday in the New Orleans Handicap.

Here's what happened. Not long after jockey Corey Lanerie split with Asmussen earlier this meet, Spanish Empire raced in the Louisiana Handicap, and with Asmussen lacking a go-to rider, Martin picked up the mount. Spanish Empire won that start, and came back with a good second in the Grade 3 Whirlaway Handicap, again with Martin aboard. Asmussen's thinking is that as Spanish Empire has progressed - and this colt has come a long way in a short time - Martin has progressed with him.

"He's changed a lot for us, and Eddie's been a part of the process," Asmussen said. "Eddie's our best option with him."

Spanish Empire has never faced horses like those he meets Sunday, but who really knows how good this horse can be? Spanish Empire was a floundering maiden last summer, but has come quickly to hand in the last six months. A 4-year-old by Pleasant Colony, Spanish Empire has a high cruising speed and plenty of stamina.

"I feel very good about the prospect of him running his race," Asmussen said. "Everything we've done before this was to get him to this race."

Lotta Kim back in training

Lotta Kim, sufficiently recovered from injuries sustained in a fall last month, returned to training on Thursday. Lotta Kim impressively won the Tiffany Lass Stakes here on Jan. 25, her first start of the year, and was being pointed to the Fair Grounds Oaks. But as she came off the racetrack following regular morning exercise, Lotta Kim spooked and fell hard on cement, badly cutting her hind leg.

The wound required 25 stitches, but Lotta Kim never contracted an infection. The leg still looks ugly, but Lotta Kim is on the way back. When and where she starts next, however, is uncertain.

"I'm going to say it's going to take five to six weeks with her," said trainer Hal Wiggins. "We'll play it day by day. We're not going to rush her into anything. When she's ready, she'll tell us."