05/18/2003 11:00PM

Stage set for record crowd


ELMONT, N.Y. - In four of the last six years, a horse came to the Belmont Stakes with the opportunity to win the Triple Crown. While those occasions accounted for four of the top six Belmont Stakes crowds and handle figures, New York Racing Association officials believe they will pale in comparison to June 7, when the New York-bred gelding Funny Cide takes his shot at the Triple Crown in the 135th Belmont Stakes.

"This will be the biggest one ever," said Bill Nader, a NYRA senior vice president. "New York is now a one-horse town. It's our town, it's our horse, it's our race, it's our moment. It's an opportunity that's just incredible."

Nader expects this year's Belmont crowd to surpass last year's record of 103,222, who watched longshot Sarava deny War Emblem his Triple Crown.

"All things being equal, that should be a given," Nader said. "I don't know how this could get any better unless Funny Cide was a filly."

Bobby Frankel, trainer of Empire Maker, who many believe to be Funny Cide's biggest obstacle to the Triple Crown, said: "If they don't get 125,000 here then they're not doing their job."

The four horses who have attempted to win the Triple Crown since 1997 - Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, and War Emblem - were all based outside of New York and did not ship to Belmont until three days before the race. Funny Cide, who went 3 for 3 at Belmont as a 2-year-old, is stabled in Belmont's Barn 6 and arrived home seven hours after winning Saturday's Preakness by a near-record 9 3/4 lengths at Pimlico.

Nader said that after Funny Cide became the first New York-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, he and other NYRA officials had a networking breakfast with about 130 Nassau County business leaders.

"Most of the people had never been to Belmont Park, never attended a horse race in their life," Nader said. "I mentioned Funny Cide's name and they broke out in applause."

All 28,000 reserved seats were sold out even before Funny Cide won the Preakness. However, with many benches throughout the spacious facility and the addition of bleacher seats on the apron, fans can still find seating. General and clubhouse admission prices remain at $2 and $5, respectively.

On Monday on eBay, the popular online auction site, tickets to the Belmont Stakes were being offered for as high as $530 a pair. New York's anti-scalping law, however, prohibits any New York resident from bidding more than $5 above the ticket price or more than 20 percent above the face value, whichever is greater.

Gates on Belmont Day will open at 8:30 a.m., with first post slated for noon. New York's NBC affiliate will broadcast the first half-hour of racing live, and ESPN may expand on its scheduled two-hour coverage later Saturday afternoon, according to Nader. NBC's 90-minute national telecast begins at 5 p.m. Eastern.

Post time for the Belmont is 6:04 p.m.

- additional reporting by Matt Hegarty