10/19/2006 12:00AM

New York-breds at center stage

Adam Coglianese
For a 3rd straight year, West Virginia will be the Empire Classic choice.

ELMONT, N.Y. - New York-breds have made such tremendous strides the last several years that even a sheikh from Dubai has gotten with the program.

Two months ago, Sheikh Rashid bin Mohammed al Maktoum, the son of Sheikh Mohammed, purchased West Virginia privately from Donald and Mary Zuckerman. On Saturday, West Virginia heads a field of 10 entered in the $250,000 Empire Classic, the most prestigious race run for New York-breds.

The Empire Classic is the highlight of New York Showcase Day, an entire 10-race card at Belmont Park devoted to New York-breds. There are seven traditional stakes carded with purses totaling $1 million. There is also a $65,000 overnight stakes for New York-bred 3-year-old fillies on the turf.

The Empire Classic field includes Funny Cide, who helped put the New York-bred program on the map with his victories in the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and subsequent Eclipse Award. While he isn't the same horse he used to be, the now 6-year-old Funny Cide will always be the poster horse for New York-breds.

"We were starting to move along, getting our fair share of stakes winners," said Joe Spadaro, deputy director of the New York State Thoroughbred Breeding and Development Fund. "It took a Funny Cide to win a race like the Kentucky Derby to bring a national awareness of the program. He gave us a big boost."

That momentum has been carried forward with Grade 1 performers such as Commentator, Behaving Badly, and - this year - Fleet Indian, who is likely to go off a strong favorite in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs.

In 2002, Funny Cide beat Spite the Devil by a neck in the Sleepy Hollow for 2-year-olds. Spite the Devil has won the last two runnings of the Empire Classic, upsetting favored West Virginia on both occasions.

Spite the Devil is one of three horses entered on the card who won a stakes race on last year's New York Showcase Day. Sharp Humor, who won last year's Sleepy Hollow, will meet Gold and Roses in the $125,000 Hudson Handicap for male sprinters.

Rahys' Appeal won last year's Ticonderoga when the race was rained off the turf to the main track. She will attempt to win the race on turf this year. Lady Bi Bi, winner of the 2003 Ticonderoga, is also in this field.

Certifiably Crazy, runner-up in the 2004 Mohawk Handicap, will be favored to win this year's running of the $150,000 Mohawk as he tries to exact some revenge on Retribution, who beat him in the Ashley T. Cole Handicap last month.

Bad Boy Rising and Chief's Lake head a light field of six entered in the $100,000 Sleepy Hollow for 2-year-old colts and geldings. Win With a Wink, a 2 3/4-length winner of the Joseph A. Gimma last out, seeks to remain undefeated from four starts when she heads a field of eight in the $100,000 Maid of the Mist for juvenile fillies.

But the focal point of the day will be the Empire Classic, run at 1 1/8 miles around one turn. West Virginia was beaten a head by Spite the Devil as the 2-1 favorite in 2004. Last year, he finished fifth as the 2-1 favorite.

Sheikh Rashid purchased West Virginia with the idea of taking him to Dubai for that country's Carnival of Racing during the winter and spring. In his first start for Sheikh Rashid, West Virginia finished second to Naughty New Yorker in the General Douglas MacArthur Handicap on Sept. 13.

"I think the mile and an eighth helps him in this race as opposed to the last race being a mile," Pletcher said. "But, unfortunately, he is a horse that is a little better around two turns than one. That part of it we can't change. This the biggest race for New York-breds so we're running, but really he's a little better around two turns."

Funny Cide has had an up-and-down 6-year-old campaign. He finished second to West Virginia in the Excelsior and then won the Kings Point for statebreds in April. Since winning the Grade 3 Dominion Day Stakes at Woodbine in July, he has been uncompetitive in both the Woodward and Brooklyn.

"He bled some in the Brooklyn," trainer Barclay Tagg said. "He gets scared when he does that. I worked him a couple of times since, scoped him, and he's been fine. I changed the medication around a little bit and stuff like that and I put him on shavings and a different kind of feed."

While Tagg said he's been pleased with Funny Cide's training and soundness, he admits he's not sure what to expect from the gelding.

"When he wants to run he can run with anybody," Tagg said. "When he doesn't want to run it doesn't matter what the hell you do with him."

Naughty New Yorker has won his last two starts against statebreds, including the MacArthur just 11 days after running poorly in the Grade 1 Woodward.

"When he's with the New York horses he is what he is, which is pretty good," trainer Pat Kelly said.

Organizer and Carminooch, second and third in last year's Classic, are back again. Organizer has never finished worse than third in nine starts at Belmont, while Carminooch has not run since winning the Ave's Flag over Aqueduct's inner track in February.

Indian Hawke (the Albany winner), Run Red Run, Accountforthegold, and Tommasi complete the Empire Classic field.