05/18/2003 11:00PM

Funny Cide wins powerfully

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BALTIMORE, Md. - Impressive.

In almost 50 years of Preakness coverage, we can't recall a Kentucky Derby winner who showed as much forcefulness from Churchill Downs to Pimlico as Funny Cide did Saturday, winning the Preakness by 9 3/4 lengths.

Hansel and Point Given appeared considerably stronger here in their respective Preakness performances than in Louisville, but neither was a Derby winner.

Secretariat's Preakness triumph was more spectacular than his Derby but he set a track record in winning the Derby which still stands. He also set a track record in the Preakness which was not recognized.

There are others whose form appeared notably sharper in the Preakness, but the day and hour belong to the continually surprising Funny Cide, perhaps because it was so unexpected. Few handicappers were on record to predict a tour de force and a number of top trainers took the opportunity to urge an extra week interval between the Derby and Preakness from the present two.

There is nothing sacred about a two-week interval; time-honored perhaps. There was a time when the Preakness preceded the Derby, with the interval in days instead of weeks. In 1932, for example, Burgoo King won the Preakness for Col. E.R. Bradley on a Saturday, shipped to Louisville Sunday, and won the Kentucky Derby two days later on a Tuesday.

Whirlaway, Calumet's Triple Crown winner of 1941, had one week between his Derby and Preakness victories. Citation, the farm's Triple Crown winner of 1948, had two weeks, and the pattern has remained pretty much the same ever since.

Because he had an ideal trip in the Kentucky Derby and drew an outside post for the Preakness, Funny Cide was a mild 19-10 favorite Saturday. The vigor he displayed throughout the Preakness, however, told the true story - this is a much better race horse than generally conceded, and well deserves the honor of bidding for a sweep of the classics.

Considerable credit is also due his connections. The 10 owners of the Sackatoga Stable have been able to convey their appealing story and its emotional tone to the public without compromising excess. Trainer Barclay Tagg, thrust into a maelstrom of hype, has kept his focus on the prize and maintained his composure under difficult circumstances. As for jockey Jose Santos, no rider in recent memory has been cast in a more difficult role so needlessly and has handled it with such grace. He has also helped Funny Cide with his saddle expertise and his consistent good judgment.

What are the chances of a Triple Crown? The evidence of the Preakness is compelling and yet the experience of recent years, with so many Derby and Preakness winners failing over the final hurdle, tells us this is a difficult task. The Belmont, at 1 1/2 miles, is a much different race than the first two. On the other hand, Funny Cide is always surprising. He shocked the Kentucky Derby scene at 12-1 and he stunned the Preakness scene with a galloping victory by almost 10 lengths. Which rabbit, what hat for the Belmont?