03/28/2006 12:00AM

The resemblance is uncanny

Sharp Humor, winning the Swale, will make his two-turn debut in the Florida Derby on Saturday.

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. - The similarities, at least to this point, are inescapable. Sharp Humor is following so closely in the footsteps of Funny Cide that Dale Romans can only shake his head and smile.

"Let's just hope we can keep following," said Romans, who trains Sharp Humor for the Purdedel Stable of Ed and Mara Edelberg and Chris Purdy.

Sharp Humor, who figures as one of the middle wagering choices in the $1 million Florida Derby on Saturday at Gulfstream Park, is a speedy New York-bred by Distorted Humor. For years, such breeding would prevent a horse from being taken seriously for the Kentucky Derby, but then Funny Cide - a New York-bred son of Distorted Humor - jumped up and erased all preconceptions by winning the 2003 Derby.

Clearly, Sharp Humor has a lot to do to fully emulate Funny Cide, but with just five weeks remaining before the 132nd Derby, Romans said he believes the foundation has been properly laid. Just like Funny Cide, Sharp Humor won three races as a 2-year-old. He won a statebred maiden race at Belmont Park and then the same two stakes Funny Cide took in capping his juvenile season - the Bernard F. Bongard Stakes and the Sleepy Hollow Stakes.

Sharp Humor has "really matured" during the initial months of his 3-year-old season, according to Romans.

After winning the Oct. 22 Sleepy Hollow, Sharp Humor spent the winter at Becky Thomas's Sequel Stallions farm in Ocala, Fla., and "he came back bigger and stronger," Romans said Tuesday while watching Sharp Humor school at the starting gate and gallop an easy 1 1/2 miles at the Palm Meadows training center.

"The one thing I've noticed is he developed quite a personality over the winter," said Liz Gray, the longtime Romans assistant who helped oversee Sharp Humor's early development in New York and rejoined him at Palm Meadows. "He's really confident now, a lot more than last year."

In his lone start this year, Sharp Humor upset the seven-furlong Swale Stakes on March 4 at nearly 14-1. Romans said he initially wanted to have Sharp Humor debut in the Feb. 4 Hutcheson Stakes, but "the horse just didn't seem ready," said Romans. "Ideally, you'd like to get three races into a horse before the [Kentucky] Derby, but it just didn't work out that way for us. He just didn't seem fit enough to start him back then."

The Florida Derby will be the first two-turn race for Sharp Humor, and therein lies a stark contrast with Funny Cide. When Funny Cide won the Derby, he had prepped in three two-turn races: the Holy Bull, Louisiana Derby, and Wood Memorial.

"That part of it may be tough for us, but his pedigree says he should handle the distance, and he trains like it, too," said Romans. "He'll gallop 2 1/2 miles and never get tired. What I'm really hoping is the distance will make him that much better."

Romans, 39, has become one of the top trainers in North America. He trained Kitten's Joy to a 2004 Eclipse Award as top turf horse, and won the 2005 Dubai World Cup with Roses in May. His stable consists of more than 100 horses, typically split among three or more racetracks or training centers, and his stable earnings the last two years alone totaled more than $15 million.

Romans has become the dominant trainer on his home circuit in Kentucky, where he has won or tied for leading trainer at Churchill Downs at five of the last six spring meets. And because he virtually grew up at Churchill, where his late father, Jerry, was a perennial top-10 trainer, there is absolutely nothing that Romans would like to do more than win a Derby.

And still: "Never had a Derby horse, never even close," said Romans.

To make it this year, Romans would be bringing a New York-bred who has never raced at Churchill or in Kentucky.

"Who would've ever thought that?" he said. "That just shows you how strange this game can be."

Sharp Humor, with Mark Guidry riding for the second straight race, is one of about nine 3-year-olds expected for the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby, for which entries were to be drawn Wednesday at the Hallandale Beach, Fla., track. Barbaro is the likely favorite in a field also expected to include Flashy Bull, Sunriver, Rehoboth, Saint Augustus, High Blues, Charming Image, and either of the Nick Zito pair of Doc Cheney or Hesanoldsalt.

Barclay Tagg, who has trained Funny Cide throughout the gelding's 27-race career, said he watched Sharp Humor win the Swale.

"Sharp Humor sure looked good in that last race," Tagg said before adding with a laugh: "But I don't think Dale needs any advice from me. It looks like he's doing just fine."

"We've got to make it through this race the right way before we can start thinking about the Derby," said Romans. "Obviously this is a huge test for us. Every 2-year-old you've got, the Derby is always in the back of your mind - especially one as talented as this one. Let's just hope we can take that last big step toward going home."