Updated on 09/17/2011 10:40AM

A mile and a half to the honor roll


ELMONT, N.Y. - Secretariat set track records in his Triple Crown races. Seattle Slew was the first, and only, winner of the Triple Crown while still undefeated. Affirmed beat an archrival who might have won the Triple Crown most any other year.

Since their reign in the 1970's, however, no one has been able to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. The 25-year gap since Affirmed in 1978 equals the longest Triple Crown drought in history, between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973.

There have been eight 3-year-olds from 1979 to 2002 who were able to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but not the third, including four colts between 1997 and 2002.

Now, along comes another runner trying to break through. Like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, Funny Cide has broken the mold. He was the first gelding to win the Derby since 1929. He was the first New York-bred to win the Derby. He won the Preakness by the largest margin since the photo-finish camera came into existence.

But is Funny Cide truly great? Can he join the most exclusive club in racing and become the 12th Triple Crown winner? That is what the more than 100,000 fans who are expected to stuff themselves into Belmont Park on Saturday, and a national television audience on NBC, will be eagerly anticipating at this 135th Belmont Stakes.

A pivotal aspect of Funny Cide's potential greatness was raised on Tuesday morning, when he worked five furlongs in 57.82 seconds. Only a truly special horse can withstand the rigors of the Triple Crown, continue to train eagerly - as Funny Cide has - toss in a wickedly fast workout four days before the Belmont, then go out and sweep the Triple Crown. If Funny Cide wins, he belongs in that august company.

Just ask those who know best.

"You have to run at three different tracks in three different races, with all the traveling. It's a great question to ask a horse at that stage of his career," said Steve Cauthen, the last jockey to win the Triple Crown, with Affirmed. "History tells you it's difficult to pull off. You need a great horse, and you can't have any setbacks. You have fresh horses showing up for the Belmont. He'll be as deserving a Triple Crown winner as there ever was."

"Funny Cide reminds me of a big red horse I used to know," said Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat. "I hope he smashes the field on Belmont Day."

All indications are that Funny Cide is coming into the race in top condition. Robin Smullen, Funny Cide's exercise rider and assistant trainer, on Thursday morning said Tuesday's workout had taken "nothing at all" out of Funny Cide.

"He's eating well. He's feeling well. He's doing great," she said.

"We've been really fortunate," said Barclay Tagg, who trains Funny Cide. "Everything's fallen into place."

The only apprehension Smullen and Tagg seem to have is over Funny Cide's deportment heading to the paddock on race day. At the Derby, "we had a wreck on our hands," Smullen said. "He was stopping and freezing and lunging. He had never done anything like that. But once he got in the paddock he settled right down."

Funny Cide behaved far better at the Preakness. At the Belmont, though, he will have a huge phalanx of media members shadowing his every move, and he will be the center of attention from every fan at the paddock.

"We have to hope he has enough class to handle it," Tagg said.

Funny Cide returned to the track on Thursday morning after a day off Wednesday. With Smullen aboard, he jogged clockwise once around Belmont's 1 1/2-mile main track accompanied by a pony. Smullen said Funny Cide was scheduled to jog twice around the track Friday morning, and would "stand at the gate" Friday, too.

Funny Cide will be ridden by Jose Santos, a native of Chile who will become the first Latin jockey to sweep the Triple Crown races if Funny Cide wins.

Five other 3-year-olds, and one lap of Belmont Park's main track, stand in the way of Funny Cide. Funny Cide is the 4-5 favorite on the early line set by Mike Watchmaker, national handicapper for Daily Racing Form. Empire Maker, who beat Funny Cide in the Wood Memorial but was second to Funny Cide in the Derby, is next at 8-5. The other challengers are Dynever, Scrimshaw, Supervisor, and Ten Most Wanted. All carry 126 pounds.

The six-horse field is the smallest in the Belmont since 1994.

The Belmont is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at noon Eastern time. Post time for the Belmont is scheduled for 6:38 p.m. NBC's telecast begins at 5:30.

There has been a Triple Crown drought for 25 years, but there has not been a drought in New York this week. The relentless rain continued to fall Thursday morning at Belmont Park, leaving the main track sloppy for training. The National Weather Service forecast called for clearing skies Thursday afternoon, sunny and mild Friday, then cloudy with a few showers Saturday, with a high of 67 degrees.

Funny Cide will be going for riches as well as glory. The Belmont's purse is $1 million, with $600,000 to the winner. More importantly, though, the credit card company Visa, which sponsors the Triple Crown, offers a $5 million bonus to a horse who can win the Triple Crown.

That money would be shared by the Sackatoga Stable partnership that owns Funny Cide. That group is headed by Jack Knowlton, a life-long racing fan who organized several friends, mostly buddies from his high school in Sackets Harbor, N.Y., into buying some modestly priced horses. Funny Cide cost them $75,000.

Knowlton has proven to be a true sportsman. On the day that entries were due for the Kentucky Derby five weeks ago, Empire Maker was battling a foot bruise.

"I really want that horse in the race," Knowlton told Doug Bredar, racing secretary at Churchill Downs, when he brought in a check for Funny Cide's entry and starting fees. "I feel I've got the better horse. I want to run against him again."

Funny Cide won that battle, but Empire Maker is back to challenge again. Trainer Bobby Frankel kept Empire Maker out of the Preakness to point for this crucial match.

"This week has been better than the Derby," said Jerry Bailey, who will ride Empire Maker. "No bruised foot, and he didn't miss any training."

Dynever has won three straight races, including the Lone Star Derby. He has yet to face horses of this caliber. He wore special bar shoes the past two weeks while training to protect a bruise to his left front foot, but he will race in conventional shoes, according to his trainer, Christophe Clement.

Ten Most Wanted, the Illinois Derby winner, ran poorly in the Kentucky Derby, in which he hurt his back. Like Empire Maker, he skipped the Preakness to point for the Belmont.

Scrimshaw is the only horse besides Funny Cide to run in all three Triple Crown races this year. He was third in the Preakness last time out. His natural speed should put him on or near the lead, with Funny Cide and then Empire Maker in close attendance.