05/28/2004 12:00AM

Quite a difference a year makes

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ELMONT, N.Y. - At this time last year, the racing world revolved around Funny Cide, the New York-bred gelding who was attempting to become Thoroughbred racing's 12th Triple Crown winner.

Nine days out from the 2003 Belmont Stakes, one needed special dispensation to get near trainer Barclay Tagg's Belmont Park office. Friday, with a steady rain falling outside, Tagg sat alone in his office glancing at a condition book. One race he has circled in that book is Monday's Grade 1, $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap, where Tagg's 3-year-old champion Funny Cide will try to regain some of his star quality.

"I think it's a very prestigious race. If he would win, it would bring some luster back to him," Tagg said. "I'm mainly going in it because he's stabled here, it's here, and they're calling for cool weather. At this point in the season, I'm just looking for things to be right for him."

With the temperature in the mid-80's in Baltimore on May 14, Tagg scratched Funny Cide out of the Pimlico Special, saying it was too hot. The forecast for Monday in New York calls for the temperature in the low 70's with a chance of thunderstorms. While Tagg said he would prefer not run on a sloppy track, "I don't mind some moisture in it," he said. Funny Cide won the Grade 3 Excelsior Breeders' Cup Handicap in April at Aqueduct in the mud.

If he does start in the Met, Funny Cide will be running at Belmont Park for the first time since Empire Maker foiled his Triple Crown bid in last June's Belmont Stakes. At 2, Funny Cide went 3 for 3 here - all against New York-breds - including a victory in the Sleepy Hollow Stakes at one mile.

"I don't know whether a one-turn mile will work or not," Tagg said. "A lot of people seem to think that's his thing; I don't know if it is or not."

Funny Cide began the year winning a seven-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream Park, making him 4 for 4 in one-turn races.

In the Met, Funny Cide will face the 2002 Horse of the Year and two-time champion older mare, Azeri, who was scheduled to ship in from Kentucky on Saturday. Pico Central, the Grade 1 Carter winner, arrived from California Friday. Others expected to run include Strong Hope, Gygistar, Mobil, Eye of the Tiger, Saarland, and possibly Bowman's Band.

Tagg thinks Smarty has big chance

Tagg believes Smarty Jones has an excellent chance to do what Funny Cide couldn't: win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown.

"He looks like he's got everything his way," Tagg said. "He's a very, very good horse, no question about it. He couldn't be any better. I'm glad he wasn't around last year."

On Tuesday, Tagg met briefly with John Servis, trainer of Smarty Jones, in the paddock at Philadelphia Park where Tagg won a maiden race in which Servis also had a horse. Tagg had left a congratulatory message for Servis after Smarty Jones won the Preakness.

"He's a man of his convictions, he's trained that way," Tagg said. "The horse is a wonderful horse. There's nothing you can say he's done wrong."

Maybe Brooklyn for Bowman's Band

If you were looking forward to betting Bowman's Band at a long price in the Metropolitan Handicap, don't hold your breath.

Allen Jerkens, the trainer of Bowman's Band, said on Friday that the horse is not certain to start in the Met Mile. Jerkens will not make his decision until after Bowman's Band blows out on Saturday morning, and after Jerkens gets a better handle on who is running in the race.

"I honestly can't tell you what will make me go," Jerkens said. "I really wish I knew."

If he starts, Bowman's Band will get five pounds from co-highweights Pico Central and Strong Hope, who finished one-two in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct racetrack on April 10 in an exceptionally fast race. Despite an outstanding career record of 7 wins and 9 seconds in 26 starts - and career earnings just shy of $1 million - Bowman's Band has been a cut below Grade 1 horses, and the 6-year-old horse would likely be one of the longer shots in the Met Mile.

Bowman's Band's last start was in the Grade 1 Pimlico Special. He ran evenly to finish third in the six-horse field, beaten 3 3/4 lengths by Southern Image.

If Bowman's Band doesn't go in the Met Mile, Jerkens said he will point the horse to the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap on June 12. The Brooklyn is 1 1/8 miles and has a purse of $250,000.

Jerkens also said that Society Selection is on track for the June 4 Acorn Stakes, a Grade 1 race for 3-year-old fillies at one mile. Society Selection, the winner of the Grade 1 Frizette Stakes last year and the Grade 3 Comely Stakes in her last start, on April 9 at Aqueduct, will likely be one of the top choices in the Acorn. Others expected for the race are Bending Strings, Bohemian Lady, Friendly Michelle, Island Sand, La Reina, Pawyne Princess, and Victory U. S. A. Daydreaming, Elusive Diva, and Ender's Sister are possible.

Hough has a live one

Normally, any trainer who has a relatively expensive, precocious 2-year-old filly who wins first out at 2-5 by coming from off the pace can be forgiven for being excited about the filly's future. But Stanley Hough is being what he calls "realistic" in regard to Western Princess, who beat five others in her debut on April 28 at Aqueduct.

"Really, she was 2-5 in there because she was the only horse that wasn't New York-bred," Hough said Friday. "They had to bet someone."

Still, Hough is pointing Western Princess to the June 3 Fashion Stakes, the first 2-year-old stakes of the year at Belmont Park. Five other fillies are expected to run in the five-furlong Fashion, and four of those were first-out winners as well. The likely favorite is Chocolate Brown, who ran 4 1/2 furlongs in her debut in a fast 53 seconds, winning by 5 3/4 lengths on April 8 at Aqueduct.

Hough bought Western Princess, who is by Gone West, for $225,000 at the 2003 Keeneland September sale, attracted to her "good balance." She hasn't shown much speed in the mornings, but Hough thinks she will get better in longer races and as the year goes on.

"She's not real quick, but she's got enough speed for these races," Hough said. "A little longer might help her out a little bit."

Hough also has high hopes for Request for Parole, who is being pointed to the Grade 1 Manhattan Handicap at 1 1/4 miles on the turf at Belmont on the June 5 undercard. Request for Parole was second in his last start, the Pan American Handicap at 1 1/2 miles on the turf at Gulfstream Park, but Hough said the 5-year-old horse's performance was better than it looks on paper.

"He really got shuffled around a lot in that race, a couple of times, and I think he probably was best in that race," Hough said.

The Manhattan is still taking shape, but among those considered probable are Burning Sun, Kicken Kris, Meteor Storm, Millennium Dragon, Quest Star, and Stroll. Possible runners include Better Talk Now, Della Francesca, Dynever, Evening Attire, King's Drama, Mr. Brien, and Vangelis.

* Live coverage of the Met Mile on Television Games Network will be simulcast on Fox Sports New York on Monday from 5 to 6 p.m. Eastern. TVG is owned by Gemstar-TV Guide Inc., a public-company that is part-owned by News Corp., which owns Fox Sports

- additional reporting by Matt Hegarty