Rain or shine, Funny Cide ready for Preakness
By Richard Rosenblatt
BALTIMORE - The Kentucky Derby winner likes a sloppy track. So, Funny Cide should be in great shape when he tries to take the next step toward becoming the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter-century.
It poured at Pimlico on Friday, and the weather forecast called for even more rain Saturday in the hours leading up to the Preakness Stakes.
There's no telling what the track will look like at post time, but officials said a fast racing strip was possible as long as the rain stopped a few hours before the 6:12 p.m. start.
No problem for Funny Cide, the 7-5 morning-line favorite over nine rivals in the second leg of the Triple Crown. The chestnut gelding worked out effortlessly in the slop at Belmont Park on April 22.
"It didn't seem to bother him, and I was on his back," Funny Cide's exercise rider Robin Smullen said Friday. "I don't think it's going to matter whether the track's sloppy, sealed, whatever. He's ready."
And he's at Pimlico. Funny Cide arrived Friday, ahead of trainer Barclay Tagg's schedule for a Saturday morning trip from New York. Wet roads caused the change in plans.
An off-track appears to be just another edge for Funny Cide.
"He handles the mud real good," Funny Cide's jockey Jose Santos said. "It's different at every racetrack. That's the only concern that I have."
The biggest advantage is an apparent lack of quality challengers in what could be one of the weakest Preakness fields in years.
The 1 3/16th-mile race shapes up as a duel between Funny Cide and Peace Rules, third in the Derby and the second choice at 8-5. Peace Rules beat Funny Cide in the Louisiana Derby two months ago, and Funny Cide turned the tables in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago.
"Peace Rules is the only horse I'm scared about," Santos said.
With a win Saturday, Funny Cide moves to the threshold of racing immortality. If he goes on to win the Belmont Stakes on June 7, Funny Cide will become the 12th Triple Crown champion and first since Affirmed in 1978.
"All we're trying to do is win the Preakness," Tagg said.
Funny Cide's rise to racing fame has been an unlikely journey, starting with his Derby win over favorite Empire Maker at odds of 12-1. A week after becoming the first New York bred and first gelding in 74 years to win the Derby, controversy struck.
Santos' ride came under investigation after a published photograph and a story in The Miami Herald raised suspicion that the rider had something other than a whip in his right hand when he crossed the finish line. He was cleared of wrongdoing Monday by Churchill Downs after a 48-hour investigation.
Jack Knowlton, general partner of three-horse Sackatoga Stable, which paid $75,000 for Funny Cide, is confident, but knows what can happen in big races.
"Anyone can jump up and win," Knowlton said. "Volponi wins the Breeders' Cup Classic at 43-1. These things happen. But I'd rather be sitting here at 7-5 instead of 15-1."
Which brings up the rest of the field.
Baffert's Senor Swinger is coupled in the betting with D. Wayne Lukas' Scrimshaw. The colts owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis were 5-1. Had each been a separate entry, their odds would have been higher.
Senor Swinger returns to dirt after winning the Crown Royal American Turf, while Scrimshaw was 11th in the Derby -- 10 1/4 lengths behind Funny Cide.
The rest of the field is 10-1 or higher.
Midway Road, one of four 20-1 long shots, steps up in class after an allowance win.
"I need one of the two favorites to not run their race, or both of them, which is not likely to happen," trainer Neil Howard said. "I need things to go all haywire."
Jennifer Pedersen trains New York Hero, another 20-1 shot and one of three Maryland-breds in the race. New York Hero was fifth in the Withers in his last start.
"On paper, there are two standouts, but that's what these races are for," Pedersen said. "We've seen upsets year after year."
Indeed. The Derby favorite has lost 23 of the last 24 years, and the Preakness favorite has lost six of the past 10 years.
The last Maryland-bred to win the Preakness was 14-1 shot Deputed Testamony in 1983 -- and he won the last time the race was run over a sloppy track.
The other 20-1 choices are Kissin Saint and Foufa's Warrior.
Kissin Saint was third in the Wood Memorial, behind Empire Maker and Funny Cide. Foufa's Warrior was third behind Senor Swinger in the Crown Royal American Turf.
Cherokee's Boy and Ten Cents a Shine are each 15-1. Cherokee's Boy has won six of 12 starts, but has yet to face top quality 3-year-olds. Ten Cents a Shine, a second Lukas entry, was eighth in the Derby and eighth in two starts before that -- beaten a total of 64 1/2 lengths.
With all the pieces falling into place for Funny Cide, it's left to Tagg -- a self-described eternal pessimist -- to put the Preakness in perspective.
"You might think you are the best horse this week, but another colt is just rounding into form and will blow you away," he said. "It's not easy to make concrete answers."