Updated on 09/17/2011 10:39AM

Style may make classic substance

Email

WASHINGTON - When Funny Cide attempts to win the Belmont Stakes and capture the Triple Crown, he must do more than defeat a formidable group of opponents. He must overcome history.

The Triple Crown series almost unfailingly thwarts horses who are not among the sport's all-time greats. In the past 55 years, only Citation, Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew have swept the 3-year-old classics. Even Funny Cide's admirers could not argue that the gelding is in their exalted class.

Yet horses do not fail in the Triple Crown simply because the racing gods deem that they are not sufficiently great. Often they miss because they are ill-suited to the special demands of the Belmont. Funny Cide, however, possesses some of the talents necessary to win at 1 1/2 miles, giving him an excellent chance to accomplish the most difficult feat in the sport.

If a committee of experts tried to design a definitive test of American racehorses, it could not have devised one more effective than the Triple Crown series. In theory, a less-than-great horse ought to be able to beat a subpar group of rivals three times or hit a streak of hot form lasting for a few weeks. But of the 11 Triple Crown winners, only one - Omaha in 1935 - might be considered a fluke.

No one conceived or planned the Triple Crown. It evolved haphazardly. When Sir Barton won all three classics in 1919, there was no Triple Crown. Charles Hatton, a Daily Racing Form columnist, began using the term in the 1930's, and when Whirlaway completed a sweep in 1941, he was the first horse universally hailed as a Triple Crown winner. The Thoroughbred Racing Associations created a Triple Crown trophy in 1950, and in 1987 a financial bonus was attached to the series. Visa International will pay the owners of Funny Cide $5 million if he completes the sweep.

Four horses won the Triple Crown in the 1940's, but no horse did it in the quarter of a century between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973. The 1970's, the so-called decade of champions, produced three Triple Crown winners. But another 25 years have passed since Affirmed's heroics in 1978.

Before 1978, horses who captured two-thirds of the Triple Crown were just as likely to be foiled in the Derby or Preakness as the Belmont. Racing luck was a frequent culprit; Native Dancer's rough trip cost him the 1953 Derby and Little Current was badly blocked in 1974.

But since Affirmed's triumph, the Belmont Stakes has become the great obstacle in the Triple Crown. Eight times a colt has won the Derby and Preakness, and each time he has failed to complete the sweep.

Two changes in the modern game have made the Belmont so elusive. American Thoroughbreds have become less durable, and running three times in a five-week period is more stressful for modern horses than for their ancestors. (The schedule, which took its present form in the 1970's, used to be even more demanding. Sir Barton had only three days' rest between the Derby and the Preakness.) During the years from 1949 to 1972, 16 of the 24 of the horses who won the Belmont had gone through the entire Triple Crown. During the past 24 years, horses competing in the entire series have won 10 Belmonts.

The major obstacle in the modern Triple Crown, however, is the Belmont's distance. Contemporary American horses almost never compete at 1 1/2 miles on the dirt. Few are bred to run so far. It is not easy to predict which horses will handle the longer distance; three of the past four Belmont winners have paid off at 70-1, 18-1, and 29-1. But the history of the race suggests strongly that a horse's running style plays a great part in determining his effectiveness. And the ideal style for the Belmont is antithetical to the style that often succeeds in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Horses frequently seize command of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness with one bold move - usually on the final turn. But when a horse tries to unleash a similar burst at Belmont Park, he still has a seemingly endless stretch in front of him, and rarely can sustain momentum to the finish line.

Many horses have won the Derby or the Preakness with eye-catching acceleration on the turn: Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Alysheba (1987), Sunday Silence (1989), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999). All of them lost their Triple Crown bid in the Belmont, and almost all of them were fading in the last quarter-mile.

Plodders sometimes win the Belmont and speed horses often do - but in either case they are likely to be even-paced runners, not ones whose forte is sharp acceleration. When Summing rallied to win the 1981 Belmont, his three half-miles were clocked in 48.80 seconds, 49.60 and 49.60. When Affirmed led all the way in 1978, he meted out his speed, running the first quarter-mile in 25 seconds flat and the final quarter in 25.20. Such controllable speed is the most formidable asset a horse can have in the Belmont. It is no coincidence that the past four Triple Crown winners won the race by leading all the way.

As Funny Cide bids to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, he has certain obvious demerits. He is not a great horse, certainly not in the class of Secretariat and the others. His pedigree is hardly ideal for a 1 1/2-mile race. He will be competing for the third time in five weeks against colts who are fresher. He is meeting at least two rivals, Empire Maker and Dynever, who might possess superior talent.

But Funny Cide has the optimal running style. Of all the horses who have bid for the Triple Crown since 1978, the only ones possessing Affirmed's combination of raw speed and tractability have been Silver Charm and Funny Cide. Silver Charm ran well enough to win in 1997 but was foiled by Touch Gold's outstanding performance. Funny Cide proved in the Derby and Preakness that he can use his speed to obtain a perfect trip. He is the type of runner capable of stringing together six straight quarter-miles of between 24 and 25 seconds each. With this style, he could add his name to a list that includes some of the greatest Thoroughbreds who ever lived.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post

Elusive crown

Funny Cide is the 28th horse to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes and earn a chance to capture the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. Of them, only 11 have succeeded and only three from the last 18 candidates, dating to Tim Tam in 1958.

BELMONTBELMONT

YEARHORSEFINISHWINNER

2002War Emblem8thSarava

1999Charismatic3rdLemon Drop Kid

1998Real Quiet2ndVictory Gallop

1997Silver Charm2ndTouch Gold

1989Sunday Silence2ndEasy Goer

1987Alysheba4thBet Twice

1981Pleasant Colony3rdSumming

1979Spectacular Bid3rdCoastal

1978Affirmed1stAffirmed

1977Seattle Slew1stSeattle Slew

1973Secretariat1stSecretariat

1971Canonero II 4thPass Catcher

1969Majestic Prince2ndArts and Letters

1968Forward Pass2ndStage Door Johnny

1966Kauai King4thAmberoid

1964Northern Dancer3rdQuadrangle

1961Carry Back7thSherluck

1958Tim Tam2ndCavan

1948Citation1stCitation

1946Assault1stAssault

1944Pensive2ndBounding Home

1943Count Fleet1stCount Fleet

1941Whirlaway1stWhirlaway

1937War Admiral1stWar Admiral

1930Gallant Fox1stGallant Fox

1935Omaha1stOmaha

1919Sir Barton1stSir Barton