06/01/2003 11:00PM

We could all use another Affirmed


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Great horses create their own industries. Seabiscuit has his book and his upcoming movie. Secretariat's considerable clout is linked to a foundation benefiting equine veterinary research. Northern Dancer manufactured his own line of personally stamped stallions, while Cigar had enough name recognition to become a crossover hit with mainstream media.

It remains to be seen if Funny-mania catches on beyond this Saturday. If Funny Cide wins the Belmont Stakes, and becomes the 12th winner of the Triple Crown, his first job - if we've got this right - is to save racing. Saved from what, exactly, has yet to be pinned down.

A better goal would be for Funny Cide to become a cultural phenomenon, transcending the narrow boundaries of racing. As a child of the computer age, he already has a leg up with the creation of a very attractive web site (funnycide.com), which has the potential to reach a broader public. The site, right now, is still in its infancy. But give it a chance. It's only been a month since he became a household name.

If Funny Cide's enthusiastic fans would like a role model, they need not look far. All week long they will be surrounded by the aura of Affirmed, the last winner of the Triple Crown.

In both racing and in retirement, Affirmed evolved as a highly personal champion. Call it approachable awe. There was in him both the regal and the routine, an earthy blend of personality traits that belied his lofty accomplishments.

Affirmed's public image was best summed up by Patrick Robinson in his text accompanying the Richard Stone Reeves collection of portraits, "A Decade of Champions."

"It is a curious fact that when perfection comes to call, it has an unwanted quality about it," Robinson wrote. "And Affirmed, like a lot of very great men, seemed to spend a lifetime refuting criticism - proving this, proving that. But when he finally walked cheerfully away into retirement, only those with a grotesquely contrary turn of mind continued to doubt whether or not he was either one of the all-time greats, or perhaps the all-time great."

Affirmed was also, as Robinson beautifully describes, a loner, a scamp, a dreamer, and a dandy, selflessly making superstars of the people in his orbit. For three solid years Affirmed plied his difficult trade without complaint, then for another 21 years he pulled his weight at stud, ending up a cherished treasure at Jonabell Farm in Kentucky.

That is where Affirmed is buried, beneath a statue of himself at Jonabell, now owned by Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum's Darley Stud. To the farm's everlasting credit, it maintains a portion of its web site as a tribute to Affirmed, where articles and photos are collected and where fans can submit their personal reflections.

Elizabeth Tobey is a doctoral candidate in the history of Italian Renaissance art at the University of Maryland. She first beheld Affirmed in 1996, shortly after returning from a research trip to Mantua, Italy, where she studied the frescoes of the Palazzo Te, depicting the racehorses of the ruling Gonzaga family.

"Affirmed was led out into the sunlight, and he posed like a statue against the backdrop of the green fields of bluegrass," Tobey writes. "He had such an incredible look of intelligence and dignity in his eye, of a noble quality that I had never seen in any living horse, nor seen since. I couldn't help but think of the painted steeds on the walls of the palace in Mantua, who may have even been his distant ancestors, as some of the Mantuan steeds were exported to England."

Affirmed fan David Goodall of Los Angeles could not get over the fact that one day at Hollywood Park in 2001 he encountered an elderly woman wearing a hat displaying the names "Alaniz" and "Affirmed." Her name was Rita. She showed him an old Polaroid photograph.

"This is a picture of my husband and Affirmed," she told Goodall. "He was Affirmed's groom, Juan Alaniz."

Affirmed's 1978 Belmont Stakes victory over Alydar is depicted in many forms. The most vivid is captured on an award-winning quilt. Yes, a quilt, and you guys in the back can stop giggling, because this quilt won Best in Show at the 2002 International Quilt Festival in Houston, worth a prize of $10,000. The artist is Shirley Kelly, daughter of a jockey, who lives in the western New York town of Colden, just down the road from Sackets Harbor, where several of Funny Cide's owners live.

And then there is Mark Anderson, a highly committed Affirmed fan who made annual pilgrimages to visit Affirmed at stud, bringing him customary treats.

"He seemed to know just how special he was and always behaved accordingly," Anderson writes. "In all the hours I spent watching him, I never saw him raise a fuss or get defiant with anyone. I always realized how exceptional he was and loved the idea that he seemed to enjoy seeing me. Maybe it was the carrots."

Hopefully, Funny Cide will inspire the same kind of grassroots lore. Right now, he's got a lot more work to do. So hold off on the quilting, at least until Saturday night.