06/01/2003 11:00PM

Worth playing against Funny Cide

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NEW YORK - The Kentucky Derby was a great betting race because every one of the 16 starters was a separate betting interest, meaning that tremendous betting value was built right in.

The Preakness was not a great betting race, even with 10 starters, because going in, it looked strictly like a two-horse race between Derby winner Funny Cide and Derby third-place finisher Peace Rules. All of the others seemed seriously overmatched. The only reason why some of the others were even mentioned is that no one wants to give out a chalk exacta involving two favorites, like Funny Cide and Peace Rules were in the Preakness. And, the only reason why any of the others got involved is one of the big two - Peace Rules - came up unforeseeably empty.

The value of Saturday's Belmont Stakes as a betting race lies somewhere in between the Derby and Preakness. At this writing, it looks like the maximum size of the field for this Belmont will be seven. Although seven betting interests is a far cry from what the Derby offered, it wouldn't matter a great deal if it were even less than seven, just so long as the field was well matched.

Unfortunately, like in the Preakness, there are a couple of candidates for the Belmont that are thoroughly overmatched on paper, reducing the number of genuine betting interests even further. Supervisor, having managed only one third in eight previous stakes attempts, and having yet to crack a 90 on the Beyer Speed Figure scale, is hopelessly out of his element. Scrimshaw was beaten 10 1/2 lengths by Funny Cide in both the Derby and Preakness. There is no reason to think he can close that gap, especially going a distance that looks well beyond his range.

Unlike the Preakness, however, this Belmont is not limited to only two legitimate contenders. A reasonable argument can be made on behalf of five candidates, led, of course, by Funny Cide, whose virtues are obvious. After him, in probable order of betting, come Empire Maker, Dynever, Ten Most Wanted, and Best Minister.

You can't miss routine training for two days right before the biggest battle of your life because of a foot bruise and still expect to be 100 percent. So, it is no wonder Empire Maker's lack of complete fitness surfaced in the Derby, and he hung a bit late after making a move from off the pace that looked like it was going to blow his opponents off the track.

Few 3-year-olds this year have been as visually impressive as Dynever was in winning the Lone Star Derby, and the Aventura before that. However, Dynever hasn't run really fast yet. Okay, maybe bad trips have prevented him from earning a higher Beyer than his career top of 101, but we still don't know if he is capable of running fast. And, the horses Dynever has beaten haven't exactly been the strongest.

Company kept is also a big question with Best Minister. Best Minister is beautifully bred, and he comes off a decisive win in the same stakes race (the Sir Barton) for the same trainer (Ken McPeek) who engineered the biggest upset in Belmont Stakes history last year with the 70-1 Sarava.

And then there is Ten Most Wanted. He was the international wise-guy selection in the Kentucky Derby following his overwhelming victory in the Illinois Derby, but after an inexplicably dull ninth at Churchill, there are now plenty of seats available on his once full bandwagon.

But, the primary appeal of this Belmont as a betting race centers around the probability that Funny Cide's odds will be between 4-5 and 6-5, due entirely to his big win margin in the Preakness.

I maintain the unpopular position that the real reason Funny Cide won the Preakness by a near record 9 3/4 lengths was not because he delivered a legendary performance. It was because once Peace Rules was a no show, the rest of the field was so weak that a mere normal Funny Cide performance was 10 lengths better than what the rest could do. If Funny Cide had won the Preakness by around two lengths, he wouldn't even be the favorite Saturday. Empire Maker would be.

That is because a strong case can be made that Empire Maker should have beaten Funny Cide in the Derby. In addition to the foot bruise, Empire Maker had to come from farther back and had to rally wider than Funny Cide, who had a perfect trip.

Moreover, there are distance issues to consider. Distance is not a problem for Empire Maker, but remember, Funny Cide was a big question mark at the Derby distance. The Preakness didn't suddenly make him a lock to effectively negotiate 1 1/2 miles. On top of it all, Funny Cide's parimutuel value ended when he hit the wire first in the Derby at just under 13-1. The conclusion is, Funny Cide is a bad bet Saturday for all but neophytes and souvenir hunters.

My Belmont play: Trifecta part wheel, Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted; with Empire Maker, Ten Most Wanted, Best Minister, and Funny Cide; with Empire Maker, Ten Most Wanted, Best Minister, Funny Cide, Dynever, and Scrimshaw. For a $1 denomination, that's a $24 play.