04/27/2006 11:00PM

Funny Cide's career isn't a flop

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NEW YORK - Everyone will be looking for a Kentucky Derby winner this week in the past performances, morning workouts, and news accounts preceding next Saturday's gaudy event. Most of the leading hopefuls this year come accompanied by dramatic "human interest" stories sure to be told over soaring violins and poignant piano tinkling on NBC's Derby telecast, giving viewers a choice of heart-tugging tales for which to root.

There's an easier way to find a Derby winner, a more interesting story, and a more deserving root: Look no further than Sunday's Kings Point Handicap at Aqueduct, an otherwise obscure nine-furlong route for New York-breds that has attracted the 2003 Derby winner, Funny Cide.

Remember Funny Cide? The second of four consecutive dual-classic winners, Funny Cide is still racing at 6 while War Emblem, Smarty Jones, and Afleet Alex never made it past their 3-year-old campaigns, the last two making their final career starts in the Belmont. If Funny Cide weren't a gelding, he, too, would have been whisked off to the breeding shed by now, probably characterized as the victim of some terribly unfortunate injury.

Instead, he's still running. The Kings Point will be his 28th trip to the post, more than twice as many starts as War Emblem (13), Smarty Jones (9), or Afleet Alex (12) made.

Funny Cide's career since his 2003 Triple Crown bid has hardly been the stuff of fairy tales. Since winning the Preakness 35 months ago, he has lost 17 of his 20 subsequent starts, including his last eight in a row since the lone bright spot of the 2004 Jockey Club Gold Cup. After running triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in 15 of 17 straight starts over two years, he failed to hit that mark five straight times from last June through this March, finishing fifth or worse in all four graded stakes he tried.

Some people seem to think he should be retired rather than raced, as if he is somehow bringing shame to the Derby by continuing to race at a lower level than where he was three years ago. Another way to look at it is that Funny Cide is providing a welcome and needed reality check about how horse racing really works once the network cameras and the Triple Crown crowds are gone. Not every horse who wins the Derby and Preakness is an immortal, and not every 3-year-old gets better with age. How many other horses prematurely celebrated as superstars would have provided the same lessons had they been allowed to race instead of being hustled off to stud?

Funny Cide's entry in a race restricted to New York-breds, his first such appearance since winning his first three career starts in 2002, may sound to some like the end of the line, but it could also be a new beginning for a story that is not necessarily over. Last time out, while running second to West Virginia in the Grade 3 Excelsior Handicap at Aqueduct on April 1, Funny Cide did two things he hadn't done in a while. He earned a Beyer of 103, his best since the Gold Cup 18 months ago. Even more hearteningly, he demonstrated the same flash of fighting back in defeat that he showed in two losses before his Derby and Preakness. Just as he did when passed by Peace Rules in the 2003 Louisiana Derby and by Empire Maker in the 2003 Wood Memorial, Funny Cide defiantly surged again at the rail in the Excelsior. It was a small thing, a subtle moment, but perhaps a sign that the hero of 2003 still has some big efforts left in him.

Other than an ill-advised trip to the 2003 Breeders' Cup Classic, Funny Cide's handlers have done nothing wrong with him, keeping him with trainer Barclay Tagg when other owners might have panicked and changed barns, and trying to find the appropriate level at which to race him. They've found it in the Kings Point, a race where he towers over four rivals, and it just might be a springboard to better things.

Funny Cide was never Secretariat or Seattle Slew, and he's not going to be Forego or Kelso either. Nor is he Gato del Sol or Giacomo, horses one could unkindly argue were one-hit wonders who won terrible Derbies by default. But there's nothing wrong with being more like Best Pal in his later years, a popular and talented gelding who can dominate fellow statebreds and perhaps, on his best days and when he's in the mood, be competitive in some graded stakes and even win a big one from memory.

Whoever wins the 2006 Derby will be showered with roses and premature accolades and is odds-on to be retired to stud before the end of the year - unless it's Sweetnorthern-saint, the only gelding in the likely field. That's one of the reasons he may be worth rooting for. If he wins the Derby and goes on to be a Triple Crown winner, wonderful. If three years from now he's trying to get back into the winner's circle in a race for fellow Florida-breds, that's okay too. That's racing.