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Updated on 09/17/2011 11:39AM
Straight out of 'Seabiscuit'
ELMONT, N.Y. - Both Funny Cide and Barclay Tagg pulled a fast one Tuesday morning.
Funny Cide, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, who will seek to win the Triple Crown in Saturday's 135th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, rocketed through his final workout, blazing five furlongs in 57.82 seconds. It was the fastest of 49 works at the distance, and one of only three that were faster than one minute.
The work came bright and early. Tagg, Funny Cide's trainer, had said on Monday that he "planned" on working Funny Cide on Tuesday after the renovation break, at 8:45 a.m. But he decided to take Funny Cide out as soon as the track opened for training, at 5:25 a.m., so the work was witnessed by only a handful of reporters who anticipated Tagg's audible.
Tagg said he went out early because he thought the freshly harrowed track was "beautiful" at that hour, but he added he did not mind Funny Cide avoiding the crush of print and electronic media that arrived too late to see the workout.
"My job is to make him win the race," Tagg said. "I have to protect the horse and get him as fit as I can. That's my job. He's not a circus animal. I've got to make him get to the race in peak health for a peak performance. The track was absolutely perfect then. But it was in the back of my mind that there would only be three or four people here, rather than 100."
Tagg's plan was reminiscent of the cloak-and-dagger moves that crusty, old-time trainers such as Hall of Famer Frank Whiteley used to make.
"That was a page right out of Frank Whiteley's book if I ever saw one," said trainer Allen Jerkens, a fellow Hall of Famer.
Tagg admitted, though, that the work was quicker than he preferred only four days before a 1 1/2-mile race.
"It was a little faster than I wanted," he said. "But he cooled out fast. I feel a little squeamish going a mile and a half off that work. But Allen Jerkens says he's seen more horses win off a fast work than a slow work. He'll have to handle it.
"I didn't want quite that sharp a work. Nobody does. But that's him," Tagg said. "I don't think this will take the edge off him. He just thrives on everything he's gone through. He's eating better, training better. He's just gotten better."
Robin Smullen, the exercise rider and assistant trainer who was aboard Funny Cide for the work, said Funny Cide recovered quickly. "When he got in his stall and we took the tack off, he was blowing like we never took him out," Smullen said.
The fast work was second-guessed by trainer Bobby Frankel, whose Empire Maker has split two previous meetings with Funny Cide and is the likely second choice in the Belmont.
"Unless he's a super, super horse, he's [expletive]," Frankel said. "I guess I train a lot different than he does. But I guess I shouldn't knock him. He did win the first two legs of the Triple Crown."
Frankel did admire Tagg's stealth regarding the workout.
"He must have been reading 'Seabiscuit,' " Frankel said of the bestseller that includes details of how trainer Tom Smith would often throw curveballs at the media. "He deceived the press."
Funny Cide was the first horse on the track Tuesday morning. He came through the chute at the 1 1/4-mile pole, just as the sun was rising in the northeast horizon. He cantered quickly clockwise around the track to the 6 1/2-furlong pole, stood still briefly, then turned around and headed toward the half-mile pole, where his work began.
Funny Cide was so eager to work that Smullen had to stand in the saddle as she brought Funny Cide to the starting point for the workout. He was rolling by the time he reached the half-mile pole. Daily Racing Form had Funny Cide going his first furlong in 11.18 seconds, and the opening quarter in 21.90 seconds.
"It was a little quicker the first eighth than I would have liked, but he was moving beautifully," Smullen said. "There's not much you can do. You try to get along with him, but if you restrain him more than I did, he goes faster. You have to compromise. He's strong, and he wants to challenge you. It's like he's saying, 'I know what I'm doing. Let me go.' After an eighth of a mile, I gave him a little rein, and he settled into a nice gallop. If you fight him, you're going to lose.
"He's the strongest horse I've ever ridden," Smullen said, "and I've ridden a lot of strong horses."
Daily Racing Form had Funny Cide timed in 33.21 seconds for the first three furlongs. Tagg, watching the work while astride his pony at the finish line, was timing the work as well. As Funny Cide came inside the furlong pole, he held up one hand, signaling Smullen to slow down.
Funny Cide passed the finish line in 45.03 seconds for a half-mile, and continued on another furlong. He galloped out six furlongs in 1:11.59, according to Daily Racing Form.
"I had to really grab a hold of him to get him to pull up," Smullen said. "Mentally, he's very egotistical. Now he has a much bigger ego than before the Kentucky Derby. It felt like his normal work, even though it was faster."
Tagg said Funny Cide would walk around the barn's shed row on Wednesday, then would return to the track for jogs and canters on Thursday and Friday. He said Funny Cide would probably go one lap around Belmont Park the morning of the race. Funny Cide also will school in the paddock one afternoon this week, Tagg said.
Entries for the Belmont were due to be taken on Wednesday morning. A field of seven was expected. In addition to Funny Cide and Empire Maker, the field is expected to consist of Best Minister, Dynever, Scrimshaw, Supervisor, and Ten Most Wanted.
Ten Most Wanted arrived at Belmont Park Tuesday afternoon after a flight from California. The last horse to arrive on the grounds will be Scrimshaw, who was scheduled to fly from Kentucky to New York on Wednesday.
There was a 70-percent chance of rain, including thunderstorms, both late Tuesday and into Wednesday in the Belmont Park area, according to the National Weather Service. Saturday's forecast calls for a slight chance of showers, with a high of 73 degrees.
- additional reporting by David Grening