05/19/2003 12:00AM

Or maybe his win wasn't as good as it looked

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BALTIMORE - Funny Cide won Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico by a lopsided 9 3/4 lengths, and who really knows? Maybe that was the biggest win margin ever in this leg of the Triple Crown. There was no photo finish camera around to verify Survivor's supposed win margin of 10 lengths in the first Preakness back in 1873, and the people who witnessed that event aren't talking.

But at the risk of throwing cold water on the celebration, perhaps Funny Cide's victory in the Preakness wasn't the tour de force that his win margin suggests, or that so many people would like to believe it was.

Look, Funny Cide is obviously a good horse, much better than most people gave him credit for being before he won the Kentucky Derby. This gelding's exploits over the last two weeks are welcome news in a game that can use every piece of good news it can get. He just isn't the world-beater people may think he is in the wake of his Preakness, at least not yet.

The truth is, Saturday's Preakness was a two-horse race on paper between Funny Cide and Peace Rules, who ran so well finishing third in the Kentucky Derby. The only reason why other horses were mentioned as possible contenders, aside from insanity, is that most public handicappers and racing experts are loath to give out chalk exactas. When Peace Rules shockingly came up completely empty Saturday, there was no one else left in the Preakness field who belonged in the same area code as Funny Cide. With Peace Rules out of the equation, Funny Cide was supposed to win by as many lengths as he did.

For proof, look at who finished second and third. Midway Road, the runner up, couldn't finish better than sixth in his three previous stakes attempts, and two of those stakes weren't even graded. Scrimshaw had no response when put into a full drive early on the far turn, with more than three-eighths of a mile to go, and though he was out of gas far from the finish, he managed to get third.

Look at it another way: Midway Road earned a 95 Beyer Speed Figure when he won an allowance race at Keeneland by the length of the stretch in his most recent start. Say he ran right back to that performance, which is generous when a horse is beaten as soundly as Midway Road was on Saturday, but let's say he did. Nine and three-quarter lengths going 1 3/16 miles is worth about 14 Beyer Speed Figure points, which projects out to a 109 Beyer Figure for Funny Cide in the Preakness. Scrimshaw was beaten 10 1/2 lengths on Saturday, the exact same distance he was beaten by Funny Cide in the Kentucky Derby. If Scrimshaw turned in the same kind of performance Saturday that he did in the Derby, in which he earned a 92 Beyer, then it projects out to a Beyer Figure of 107 for Funny Cide in the Preakness.

In other words, even though Funny Cide was awarded a 114 Beyer in the Preakness, I believe it is much more likely for the reasons outlined above that Funny Cide ran about as well Saturday as he did when he won the Derby, which he won by less than two lengths and in which he earned a Beyer Figure of 108. It was only the competition - or more accurately, the abject lack of it - that made it appear that Funny Cide performed so much better in the Preakness.

This is important for two reasons. First, if the probable field for the Belmont Stakes holds together, it will be an infinitely more difficult race than the Preakness was. Instead of Midway Road and Scrimshaw, Funny Cide will have to meet Empire Maker and Atswhatimtalknbout. Instead of Foufa's Warrior and Cherokee's Boy, there will be Dynever and Ten Most Wanted. A strong case can be made that both Empire Maker, runner-up in the Derby as the favorite, and Atswhatimtalknbout, a close fourth in the Derby, could have beaten Funny Cide in Louisville. Empire Maker missed critical training time in the days before the Derby because of a bruised foot, which manifested itself in the stretch of the Derby when Empire Maker hung after making what appeared a winning move, and Atswhatimtalknbout finished fastest of all in the Derby after being blocked at a crucial point late on the far turn. As for Dynever and Ten Most Wanted, the former is a very exciting prospect with the kind of impressive acceleration you don't see in very many horses, and Ten Most Wanted was the universal wise-guy horse in the Derby off an impressive score in the Illinois Derby, only to mysteriously fail to fire at Churchill Downs.

The other reason why it is important to scrutinize Funny Cide's performance in the Preakness has to do with the betting in the Belmont. If Funny Cide had won the Preakness by about the same margin he won the Derby, it would have been entirely possible that he might not even be the favorite in the Belmont. Empire Maker probably would have. But with the way Funny Cide was isolated at the finish at Pimlico, he will be not only the favorite in the Belmont, but also as low as 6-5. That's a pretty low price for a horse coming off a Preakness victory that wasn't as overwhelming as it appears on the surface.