06/04/2003 11:00PM

Time will tell the effect of a workout


ELMONT, N.Y. - The Triple Crown trail is notoriously perilous, and few horses negotiate the entire trip without a misstep. That's why only 11 have swept the series, and why it has been 25 years since the last sweep, by Affirmed.

Funny Cide was enjoying a faultless trip until Tuesday morning, when the feel-good gelding zipped five furlongs in a rapid 57.82 seconds. Trainer Barclay Tagg feels that Funny Cide, a remarkable physical specimen, can handle the added bit of stress as well as he has dealt with stress through the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Tagg is supported in his thinking by Bob Baffert, who lost two heartbreakers in the Belmont with Silver Charm and Real Quiet by a combined margin of less than a length.

"Good horses will work good and come back to race good," Baffert said the other day. "I think Funny Cide is a good horse and believe he will be a Triple Crown winner. But fast works weren't an issue in the cases of Silver Charm and Real Quiet. Silver Charm was the victim of an outstanding ride by Chris McCarron, who 'hid' his horse, Touch Gold, before pouncing on Silver Charm in the last jump. Real Quiet was beaten a nose in the Belmont by Victory Gallop, again in the last jump. Victory Gallop was the only horse in the race who could have beaten Real Quiet, just as I feel that Empire Maker is the only horse that can beat Funny Cide. But if Jose Santos concentrates on riding his horse, Funny Cide should win."

The history of the Triple Crown abounds with stories of fast workouts and their effect, or lack of effect, on the horse involved. Two that come quickly to mind involve Chateaugay and Risen Star. Chateaugay won the Kentucky Derby of 1963 but lost the Preakness to Candy Spots after equaling the Pimlico record for a mile in his workout. Chateaugay came back to beat Candy Spots in the Belmont.

Risen Star had a troubled trip in the 1988 Kentucky Derby but rebounded to win the Preakness. Blowing out for the Belmont he had one of the fastest three furlongs on record at Belmont Park, and there were dire predictions about his chances. He managed to win, by 14 lengths.

Regardless of whether he wins the Belmont or not - and I think he will - Funny Cide has gained high stature in the sport through his considerable ability and the colorful background of his connections. The appealing story of the Sackatoga Stable has touched a responsive chord throughout the country, with racing the main beneficiary. He will have the backing of a great many people when he bids for the Triple Crown on Saturday, and a victory should touch off a celebration of unique proportions.