Funny Cide a Classic tale of redemption?

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:20 AM ET

Funny things happen when a horse knocks on the door to racing history and can't get through.

Smarty Jones, this year's near-Triple Crown winner, is retired to a career as a stallion.

His jockey, Toronto-born Stew Elliott, doesn't have a mount in any of tomorrow's eight Breeders' Cup races.

The story, as fetching as it was in the spring, is rapidly becoming yesterday's news.

However, there is another Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion here at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Tex. And the tale of Funny Cide is making a compelling rerun in the buildup for the $4- million Classic, the clear showpiece of Cup Day.

Some of the sheen from Funny Cide's coat had worn off in the past 16 months since he was denied the Crown with a loss in the Belmont Stakes.

Then there was the debacle of last year's Classic where he finished ninth, beaten by fifteen lengths. And a three-race losing streak in mid-summer.

Along the way Funny Cide lost some fans and some of his reputation until he burst through with a victory in the $1-million Jockey Club Gold Cup in his previous start.

A year older and carrying more muscle, the chestnut gelding is bigger and maybe even better. He certainly looked the part yesterday when he was paraded in the Lone Star paddock not long after arriving from New York.

"The expectations just get so high when you have a horse that wins the Derby and in this case a horse that had a shot to win the Triple Crown," said Jack Knowlton, the managing partner of the Sacketoga Stable, which owns Funny Cide. "Every time you go out on the racetrack you are supposed to win.

"You just don't see that many horses that run that well in the Triple Crown come back. A lot of that is for breeding, but a lot of that is for soundness reasons. This guy shows up every time and runs hard every time."

Funny Cide has a chance to recapture the magic because he is a gelding. No lucrative stud deals and life of love and leisure await. He may still have plenty of earning power, but it has to come on the track.

Prior to Smarty Jones being denied the Crown by Birdstone in the Belmont Stakes this spring, Funny Cide was racing's hot little-guy-makes-it-big story.

From tiny Sacket's Harbor, N.Y., on the southeastern shore of Lake Ontario, the horse's owners were a bunch of high school chums who ponied up some cash and hit it big.

They were a curious oddity at the Derby, travelling to historic Churchill Downs in a yellow school bus rather than limos and drinking beer rather than champagne in celebration.

He became the first New York-bred winner in the history of the Run for the Roses, a bit of business that didn't sit well in all corners of the Bluegrass State.

After winning the first two jewels of the Triple Crown, those fun-loving owners were feted with a parade in their hometown and a local brew pub created and began selling Funny Cide Ale.

After some time away from the spotlight, however, interest began to fade. And along came Smarty Jones to replace him for the 2004 Crown.

Listed at 6-1 in the morning line, tomorrow Funny Cide will attempt to become the first Derby winner to capture the Classic since Unbridled in 1990.

"Funny Cide is doing better than he ever has in his life," trainer Barclay Tagg said. "What I'm saying is the truth. All I tell is the truth."

Whether Funny Cide has enough to prevail may well be another story. This year's Classic is one of the most contentious in years.

There is defending champion Pleasantly Perfect from California. Canadian Frank Stronach has Ghostzapper, a horse that has been iron-tough in New York and is unbeaten this year. Then there is fab filly Azeri and this year's Belmont winner, Birdstone.

"He needs to improve to win it," Ghostzapper's trainer Bobby Frankel said of Funny Cide. "I mean he has a shot, but he still needs to improve off of that last race."

Tagg certainly believes he's capable, saying his horse is in his best shape since a monster 9 3/4-length win in the Preakness.

All involved want to toss the result of last year's Classic in the manure pile behind the barn. Funny Cide was shipped to California and made his first start in 83 days. The scorching 37C heat and poor air quality also factored heavily in the poor effort.

"That whole trip was a nightmare for him," Tagg's assistant, Robin Smullen, said. "The heat, the air, Funny just wasn't himself.

"He is now, though, and this is a chance for vindication. A lot of people thought he shouldn't have raced last year. This is his chance to prove he belongs with these horses."

Tomorrow, when regular jockey Jose Santos hops on his back, odds are the racing world will get a look at the real Funny Cide, the one they fell in love with not so long ago.

"As an owner, particularly owners like us," Knowlton said, "having a chance to be in the biggest race in America other than the Derby ... it's an experience of a lifetime."


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