Updated on 09/17/2011 10:32AM

Funny Cide proves he's real deal

Email

WASHINGTON - When a horse wins a race after benefiting from good fortune, he deserves to be viewed with some skepticism. But when he does it for a second time, he merits respect for having the talent to make his own breaks.

Thus did Funny Cide earn universal acclaim for his Preakness victory after evoking few superlatives with his Kentucky Derby win. He is no longer merely the horse who won the roses because he had a perfect trip. His style might now be compared with that of Affirmed, whose combination of speed and tractability regularly enabled him to be in the right place at the right time. With these assets, Funny Cide has a solid chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

In the Derby, Funny Cide fell into an ideal spot when he settled on the rail and sat behind two rivals who were dueling for the lead; he went on to win while adversity was dogging most of the other contenders. Since he had never won an important race before, Funny Cide appeared to be another of the perfect-trip Derby winners (along with Fusaichi Pegasus, Monarchos, Grindstone, Sea Hero, etc.) whose careers peaked on the first Saturday in May.

But there was nothing accidental about Funny Cide's victory in the Preakness. He was in command from start to finish. When the gate opened, he flashed his natural speed, but jockey Jose Santos had a tight hold on him as he surveyed the tactical situation. If he had wanted, Santos could have urged Funny Cide to try for the lead immediately. But as Peace Rules and Scrimshaw were vying for the early advantage, Santos chose to settle behind them - a trip similar to the one he enjoyed in the Derby. He remained in that stalking position until he approached the final turn; there he asked Funny Cide to run in earnest, and the gelding effortlessly blew past Peace Rules.

Funny Cide's style is not necessarily the type that enraptures racing fans, who love horses who flaunt their raw speed as Holy Bull and Seattle Slew did. Fans also adore horses who habitually come from far behind - fast finishers such as Alydar, who retained a diehard following throughout his futile Triple Crown confrontations with Affirmed. But the most effective asset a Thoroughbred can possess is controllable speed. That is why Affirmed was so formidable and regularly beat the flashier Alydar. If he was in a field filled with speed, he could sit behind the other front-runners and stalk them, as he did in the Kentucky Derby. If his rivals weren't quick, he could go to the front, slow down the pace and make everybody chase him, as he did in the Preakness and the Belmont.

Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown a quarter-century ago, many outstanding horses have been thwarted in their quest to sweep the three classics. But very few of those Thoroughbreds had the kind of push-button speed that enabled Affirmed to adapt to almost any situation he encountered. Funny Cide has it.

After Funny Cide won the Derby with his perfect trip, many horseplayers were rooting for him to win the Preakness because they saw an excellent gambling situation ahead. Funny Cide would be so hyped going into the Belmont Stakes that he would be a short-priced favorite worth betting against. Steve Crist wrote in Daily Racing Form that any of three rivals - Empire Maker, Atswhatimtalknbout, and Dynever - would be likely to beat him. "If Funny Cide wins [the Preakness], good for him and better still for the Belmont," Crist said. "The prices will go up on all three of the horses."

I fully shared this view before Saturday. But it requires a re-examination after Funny Cide captured the Preakness by the biggest margin since Survivor in 1873. To some extent his 9 3/4-length romp was a reflection of the poor competition. The only challenger who came into the race with decent credentials was Peace Rules, and he ran a sub-par race Saturday. Second-place Midway Road has never won a stakes race.

Even so, Funny Cide's victory was no fluke, and he no longer appears so vulnerable in the Belmont because he ran so fast at Pimlico. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 114, the best ever recorded by any member of his age group in a race around two turns. It was the second-best Preakness figure in the race's last dozen runnings. Only Silver Charm ran faster.

It is by no means certain that Funny Cide can duplicate this performance at the demanding 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes. That issue will be the subject of intense analysis and speculation over the next three weeks. For now the sport can rejoice that it has an exciting, popular new star, and that his presence will make the Belmont the most eagerly anticipated American horse race in years.

(c) 2003 The Washington Post