10/17/2003 12:00AM

Funny Cide has much hype, little hope


NEW YORK - When Funny Cide's owners decided last week that he would run in the Breeders' Cup rather than the Empire Classic, it must have seemed like a godsend to those promoting and broadcasting the event. A Breeders' Cup whose main storyline had been the absence of so many of world's best horses now had a marketable hero. When pre-entries were announced Thursday, the official press release from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association began, "Led by Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide . . . "

A Classic victory by Funny Cide would be a tearjerker on a scale of Seabiscuit's rally from the clouds in this summer's blockbuster movie. The added attraction of Julie Krone's riding the gelding for the first time makes it so sweet a story that your teeth hurt just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, it all seems about as likely as a snowstorm at Santa Anita this Saturday. History and basic handicapping suggest that Funny Cide is a much better bet to finish last than first in the Classic, hardly the storybook ending the promoters have in mind.

Funny Cide has not raced since finishing a listless and distant third in the Haskell Aug. 3. A repeat of that performance would be good for about ninth place in the Classic. More important, that race was 83 days before the Classic, the second longest layoff by any starter in Classic history and a much longer break than has ever proved successful for a Classic aspirant.

In the 19 previous runnings of the Classic, every winner made his previous start from 7 days (Proud Truth) to 49 days (Black Tie Affair) of the main event. The average layoff for a Classic winner is 26 days, the median is 21 days, and 16 of the 19 winners had a prep within five weeks of the Classic. Of the 217 starters in those 19 Classics, 210 had a race within 63 days of the main event.

The seven who tried it off a longer layoff have all failed. Desert Wine was fifth off a 75-day layoff in 1984; Go and Go (70 days) ran 14th in 1990; Halling (74 days) was 11th in 1995; Taiki Blizzard (139 days) was 13th in 1996; Victory Gallop (70 days) was fourth in 1998; Chester House (81 days) was fourth in 1999; and Black Minnaloushe (67 days) was 10th in 2001.

Horses often win important European races off lengthy absences, but this is much easier to do in slow-early, fast-late grass races, where the field jogs along until a furious final furlong. The relatively decent performances of Chester House and Victory Gallop off long layoffs into the Classic reflect this running style, as both were stone closers who clunked up late. Funny Cide, however, is a pace-presser whose lack of racing fitness is likely to become apparent if he tussles early with sharper pace rivals such as Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro.

Funny Cide's appearance in the Classic off an 83-day layoff is not some carefully orchestrated piece of audacious training. A month ago he was not even being considered for the race, and his camp was debating whether it would be easier to come back in the Empire Classic against New York-breds at Belmont or the Grade 3 Discovery Handicap against 3-year-olds on opening day at Aqueduct. Then, as Candy Ride, Empire Maker, and Mineshaft all fell from the Classic picture, Funny Cide became a possibility.

His trainer, Barclay Tagg, said that if Funny Cide was going to be beaten in his return, it might as well be in the Breeders' Cup instead of against statebreds. Now there's a ringing endorsement.

Funny Cide may be the focus of NBC's broadcast and the NTRA's publicity, but no responsible handicapper could advocate betting on him. Off his last race and his absence, why should he finish in front of Medaglia d'Oro, Perfect Drift, Ten Most Wanted, Congaree, Hold That Tiger, Pleasantly Perfect, Volponi, or Dynever? His proper odds are due north of 20-1 but he could be half that price because of his celebrity.

The public has a special interest in Funny Cide, not only because he won the Derby and Preakness but also because he is a gelding and thus has a limitless racing career ahead of him. Dreamers will be hoping against history and reason that he will win the Classic Saturday, while realists will be hoping only that he makes it back safe and sound, perhaps to run in future Breeders' Cups as more than an afterthought.