10/15/2003 12:00AM

Plight of forgotten hero

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He inspired thoughts of the Triple Crown, had a growing fan club, and spawned a whole line of commercial products. Yet since his defeat in the Belmont Stakes and subsequent dull effort in the Haskell Invitational, Funny Cide had been largely forgotten in the march toward the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.

That all ended last weekend, when the bouncing ball - after skipping past the Discovery Handicap and Empire Classic - landed, improbably, on the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Funny Cide, the Kentucky Derby winner, will be making his first start in nearly three months, is shipping across the country for the first time, and will be facing older horses for the first time, all while competing at the demanding distance of 1 1/4 miles. He has not won a race since the Preakness Stakes more than five months ago. He has had just one start since the Belmont. And the only jockey he has ever had, Jose Santos, is committed to ride Volponi, last year's Classic winner.

Depending on your viewpoint, this is either a great sporting gesture by his up-from-the-bootstraps connections, and manna from heaven for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Breeders' Cup, which can now sell to the largely racing-ignorant American public the most recognizable name in racing for the World Thoroughbred Championships.

Or it's complete folly.

"It will be interesting to see what the bettors think of it," said Jack Knowlton, who manages the 10-member Sackatoga Stable partnership that owns Funny Cide.

It is hard to imagine serious bettors making Funny Cide a shorter price than Medaglia d'Oro, Perfect Drift, and Ten Most Wanted, and it is debatable if his legion of $2 fans will have enough staying power to make him a shorter price than Congaree and Pleasantly Perfect. Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, has Funny Cide at 12-1 on his early line for the Classic, though Watchmaker ranks him a lowly 10th on his list of top 10 contenders for the race.

"His last two races he was even-money, and he didn't win either one," Knowlton said. "Now he's in situation where he's one of many contenders.

"He showed in the Derby and Preakness that he has the talent, on the right day, to compete with these horses. If he happens to jump up and win, he would merit serious consideration for Horse of the Year."

That is true. If Funny Cide were to overcome those many hurdles and win, he would have a chance at Horse of the Year, and he certainly would secure the 3-year-old championship. It would be one of the great training feats of the year.

"It's not easy to train a horse up to a race like this, but if anyone can, Barclay can," Knowlton said, referring to trainer Barclay Tagg.

Santos had ridden Funny Cide in all his previous races. Since Funny Cide was seemingly out of consideration for the Classic, Santos committed to ride Volponi before last weekend's developments. Santos asked trainer Phil Johnson if he could get out of that commitment, but Johnson held him to it.

In a teleconference this week, Knowlton seemed mildly annoyed that Santos was unable to get off Volponi to ride Funny Cide.

"Unfortunately this was a last-minute decision to go," Knowlton said. "Jose had an opportunity to ride Volponi. Unfortunately, when he asked P.G. to get out of his commitment, he was not able to do so. We're not pleased with that. It's an unfortunate situation. Sometimes people don't act the way you wish they'd act."

Johnson, however, had the call. He was under no obligation to release Santos. They had teamed to win last year's Classic, so there was incentive to retain Santos. And, considering the many hurdles Funny Cide must overcome in this race, it might have been a serendipitous decision for Santos.