05/14/2003 11:00PM

Heading off trouble at the pass

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - To hear Barclay Tagg tell it, Funny Cide's journey to Kentucky Derby glory was an absolute diamond-lane delight. From training to shipping to the mile and one-quarter itself, everything went right.

Except for one minor detail. Funny Cide nearly went to pieces on the way from his Churchill Downs barn to the Derby saddling paddock.

There was a wild and worried look worn by both Zacarias Quintana, Funny Cide's groom, and Robin Smullen, Tagg's assistant, as they held on tight during the long walk from the Churchill Downs mile chute to the mouth of the grandstand tunnel. Funny Cide is not a big horse, but that is not the point. Anything weighing more than half a ton is dangerous if provoked, and Funny Cide was definitely unhappy about something.

"You never know what's going to trigger a horse to do something like that," Tagg said shortly after the Derby. "All three of us - Robin, the groom, and I - were really worried when he kind of fell apart. And I didn't expect it. We'd gone over with him and paddocked him. He's had a lot of handling his whole career."

Tagg's shock at Funny Cide's behavior was genuine. Nothing like that had ever happened before, and such behavior can compromise performance when it counts. Tagg describes his Derby winner as a "smart horse," a term that translates easily among horse people but tends to ring hollow with more casual fans. Other than that chatterbox Mr. Ed, what, exactly, defines a horse with smarts?

"There's a lot of ways you can say that a horse is smart," said Paco Gonzalez, who trained a very smart horse named Free House, who finished a close second in the 1997 Preakness.

"A smart horse knows how to behave right," Gonzalez went on. "Like when he saddles. He might act up a little bit on the way to being saddled. Play around a little. But when it comes time to saddle, he stays quiet and lets the trainer do whatever he wants to do."

Tagg noted, "Some horses don't run very well because they get too smart to run. But he figures things out," he said of Funny Cide. "I was hoping he might settle down, and he did. That was the only glitch in the whole two weeks, but he overcame that all on his own."

The prerace routine for Preakness runners usually begins with a call for horses to leave the stakes barn, located behind the grandstand, and take a relatively short walk along a path bordered on one side by a high fence and on the other side by barns. The fence runs along a perimeter road.

Preakness horses first encounter a real crowd after leaving the shelter of the barns. They must negotiate an open space of about 50 yards, flanked on both sides by fans who have been either drinking heavily for nine hours or have spent nearly that long trying to find a place to park. Pimlico security does a good job of keeping them far back from the horses.

From there, the horses and their handlers cross the main track, at about the quarter pole, and enter the turf course. There they are saddled in front of the jam-packed stands, surrounded by owners and well-wishers, with the infield crowd teeming behind them.

"They can get a little wild, a little nervous, out there," Gonzalez said. "That's because it is so open. They can see everything, hear all the noises. It's much different from saddling inside, which is what most horses are used to."

The trainers of Preakness horses have the option to saddle either on the grass course or in the indoor paddock, which is sandwiched behind glass between the clubhouse and the grandstand. Track management and their television partners - formerly ABC and now NBC - always hope that the entire field can be displayed on the turf course, because that can be one of the most dramatic sights in horse racing. In the end, however, it is the trainer's call.

"I don't know if I will saddle him in the infield," Tagg said Thursday morning as he headed back to his New York base from the Preakness draw festivities in Baltimore the night before.

"I might saddle him in the paddock. I'll probably decide at the last minute, because if everybody else is in the paddock, I'll saddle in the infield."

It was also Tagg's plan to stable Funny Cide in a backstretch barn upon his arrival early Saturday morning. In the past, such Preakness trainers as Elliott Walden and Neil Drysdale have stayed away from the frontside stakes barn, thereby eliminating a layer of potential distraction during the days and hours leading up to the race.

In the end, Preakness horses face nothing remotely as intense as they do on Derby day. After surviving the Derby ordeal and running his best race, Funny Cide may have been inoculated against any further distractions. Still, Tagg will take no chances.

"I didn't expect him to do what he did in the Derby," Tagg said, "which is why I'll do everything I can to prevent it from happening again. But in the end you have to rely on him. I'll try to keep it as quiet and peaceful and sensible as I can, but all you can do is the best you can. The horse has to do the rest."