08/19/2004 11:00PM

Funny Cide has earned respect

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The more that Funny Cide races, the more that some people are disappointed. He hasn't been winning very often, and he's clearly not the superhorse that the usual shills and cheerleaders tried to make him for five weeks last year. When Smarty Jones came along this spring, racing abandoned Funny Cide like he was last year's hairdo, while failing to learn the lessons of pronouncing horses immortals off two televised victories.

I didn't do a lot of rooting for Funny Cide last year, because I thought Empire Maker was a better horse. But when Funny Cide makes his long-awaited Spa debut Sunday in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup, he'll be getting some overdue cheers and respect from this corner, in part for doing something that Smarty Jones, Empire Maker, War Emblem, Fusaichi Pegasus, and Point Given never did: race as a 4-year-old.

Funny Cide is a gelding and thus couldn't be prematurely retired by a stallion-syndication industry that has become the tail wagging the dog of racing. This was unfortunate for his owners, who probably could have made 10 times more money by retiring him after the 2003 Belmont than they will by racing him for years to come. A market that can produce a $39 million valuation for Smarty Jones could probably have priced Funny Cide at not much less - both horses are by speed-oriented young sires, both won the Derby, Preakness, and no other Grade 1 races, and both ran a single fast race in winning the Preakness by enormous margins.

Instead, his owners get to race him as long as he's sound and happy, a rare gift for the fans. Saratoga is going to be cheering for him on Sunday, and maybe next year and the year after that if all goes well, and he's actually a very likeable racehorse. He has a lot of try in him, even when he's overmatched. In the Louisiana Derby and Wood Memorial last year and in the Suburban at Belmont last month, he continued to dig in and try to come again after he had been caught and passed.

Just because a horse wins two Triple Crown races does not mean he's one of the sport's all-time greats. Here we are a year later with Funny Cide and the race for older horses he tries up here is not the Grade 1 Whitney but the Saratoga Breeders' Cup. That's the level where he can win right now, the level of his lone stakes victory in nine tries since the Preakness, the Excelsior at Aqueduct last April. But he's not only honest and competitive wherever you run him, he's still eligible to get even better with age and maturity. Even if he doesn't, just by showing up Sunday, he has now done more for the game than Smarty Jones.

Who is Spitzer kidding?

If a big crowd turns out and bets enthusiastically at Saratoga Sunday, you might think it is because of Funny Cide, or some good weather, or even the scheduled Saratoga pint-glass giveaway. You might think that but you would be wrong. It would be thanks to New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. Just ask him.

The Albany Times-Union this week reported that Spitzer's office believes that a 13 percent increase in ontrack handle during the first half of the meeting "may be explained by state and federal investigations into money handling at NYRA tracks over the past few years that resulted in more security."

Marc Violette, Spitzer's spokesman, added that, "We would like to think at least some of the increase is a result of the work we've done."

The best part of the quote is the phrase "at least some." How very modest only to imply "perhaps all" rather than come right out and say it.

Even for an ambitious politician, taking credit for a single added nickel of wagering takes a staggering amount of chutzpah. There is no conceivable positive connection between Spitzer's overzealous and largely failed investigations and how much people are betting at the track this year. If anything, the distraction and financial burden of his office's efforts have diverted NYRA's attention and resources from promotion and facilities improvements that might have made business even better.

Betting is up for three reasons: the racing and weather have been better than last year, and the calendar broke the best way for a strong start. August days are always busier than those in late July and early September, and this year's meet began July 28 as opposed to July 22 a year ago. The final six days of this year's meet fall on Sept. 1-6, and no one will be surprised if those figures show a year-on-year decline.

If that happens, will Spitzer take the blame for betting decreases, or will he start another investigation to help out next year's business?