08/03/2003 11:00PM

Funny Cide has fever; Travers iffy

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Funny Cide, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, came out of his third-place finish in Sunday's Haskell Invitational with a 102-degree temperature, putting a highly anticipated showdown with Empire Maker in the $1 million Travers on Aug. 23 very much in doubt.

Trainer Barclay Tagg also said on Monday that Funny Cide had one eye closed, presumably because he had been hit with a clod of dirt. Tagg said he would have some blood work done on the gelding later this week, but with the Travers less than three weeks away, it seems likely these issues could cost Funny Cide a start in the Midsummer Derby.

"The only way I'm going to make the race in 19 days is if everything's going perfect and he's kicking the barn down," Tagg said. "I'm not going to be pressured into any races with him. I was pressured into the Preakness and the Belmont - I'm not going to be pressured into any other races even though it's Saratoga and everything else. If he's not 100 percent, he's not going in it. A hundred percent."

Funny Cide certainly wasn't 100 percent in the Haskell. Under Jose Santos, Funny Cide was about four lengths off the early pace while racing between horses. He made a mild bid around the turn, but never seriously threatened and was beaten nine lengths by the front-running winner, Peace Rules.

Santos said he did not feel Funny Cide handled the Monmouth track that well. Tagg said he would have preferred Funny Cide to have been a little closer to the front early in the race.

"I wanted him laying third behind two bodies," said Tagg. Santos, the trainer said, "thought he ought to be laying behind four bodies, so I said if that's the way you feel you do that.

"Whether that had anything to do with it or not, I don't know. When you take too much of a hold of this horse it discourages him. I don't know if it was that or not. [Santos] said he didn't handle Belmont, he said he didn't handle this track. Everybody's running in 21 and 44 all day, so I don't know how you can't handle a track like that."

With Funny Cide's status in doubt, there are five horses considered definite for the Travers: Empire Maker, Eye of the Tiger, Strong Hope, Sky Mesa, and Ten Most Wanted.

Despite his neck loss to Strong Hope in Sunday's Jim Dandy at Saratoga, Empire Maker still looms the favorite for the Travers. Trainer Bobby Frankel said he learned that Empire Maker wants to be put in the game earlier by jockey Jerry Bailey than he was in the Jim Dandy.

"You got to keep him in the race, keep his mind on his business," Frankel said. "If he had the desire of a Peace Rules with his ability, he'd be a Secretariat. It's almost better that he didn't win [Sunday] because [Bailey] might have ridden him like that in the Travers."

Frankel said the horse he fears in the Travers is Strong Hope, who recorded his fifth consecutive victory in the Jim Dandy.

"I got to beat the same horse that beat us yesterday," Frankel said. "If I can get over there in one piece I'm in good shape."

Meanwhile, Frankel said Haskell winner Peace Rules would not run in the Travers and instead will be pointed to the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 24. In that race, Peace Rules will face older horses, including stablemate Milwaukee Brew, who won an allowance race Sunday at Monmouth.

"Peace Rules, on that track, he'd be very dangerous, because when they turn for home the wire's right there," Frankel said. '"Horses that don't want to go a mile and a quarter can get it there."

Sky Mesa, who won the Grade 1 Hopeful over this track last summer, gave an encouraging performance in the Haskell, cutting nearly half into Peace Rules's three-length advantage in the final furlong to lose by 1 3/4 lengths.

"I think the best part of the race for us was he figured it all out by midstretch and really got to running," Ward said. "It was only his second race as a 3-year-old . . . we're still the rookie on the court."

Jim Dandy winner Strong Hope came out his victory in good order, according to trainer Todd Pletcher. The 10 furlongs may be a question for Strong Hope, but many had doubts he could get the nine furlongs of the Jim Dandy.

"Every time you think that's the furthest he'll go, he goes a little further," Pletcher said. "He stepped up and answered the question, now we'll ask him a real big one. I think at a mile and a quarter, based on what we saw yesterday, Empire Maker will be the favorite."

Shug McGaughey, trainer of the Jim Dandy third-place finisher, Congrats, said he would take a wait-and-see approach before declaring Congrats in or out of the Travers.

"We got to pick up 13 pounds, that's a lot. A mile and a quarter, that's a lot," McGaughey said. "Some things are going to have to happen if we are to go. I hope nothing happens to anybody's horse."