Funny Cide's burden is to revive racing
NEW YORK -- Funny Cide has more than Jose Santos riding on his back in the Belmont Stakes.
The gelding also carries the burden of reviving flagging interest in the racing industry, which hasn't had a Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
Not that some horses haven't come close. Since 1997, four have won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to falter in the Belmont Stakes, the final leg. War Emblem was foiled last year.
And the public never seems to tire of the near-misses.
"There's something good about it being kind of elusive," said Ken McPeek, who trained last year's Belmont winner, Sarava. "Hopefully, they'll keep it that way."
Not if Funny Cide becomes the 12th Triple Crown winner with a victory in Saturday's Belmont.
"Racing needs this horse to go over there and get beat, then we'll get 140,000 next year," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "If he doesn't do it, it'll build the crescendo and the hype and the mystique that we've developed."
That's why Lukas and other industry experts believe going decades without a Triple Crown winner is a good thing.
"Every year it's better if you come in with two-thirds of a Triple Crown and the excitement is there," Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel said. "If it happened too often, then it wouldn't be that big a deal."
That was the case in the 1970s, when Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed won the Triple Crown in a span of six years. Until Secretariat in 1973, it had been 25 years since Citation swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Affirmed was a popular champion, with a teenage jockey who became a household name. But he won in 1978, before the Internet and 24-hour cable television could transform him into a mainstream superstar.
Funny Cide, however, has generated a buzz that for now transcends the sport. Since gaining national prominence a month ago, the chestnut horse has his own Web site and receives fan mail addressed simply: Funny Cide, Belmont Park.
He's the only one of six horses in the race with a big sign touting him outside the track, and he's the star of radio and TV spots that call him "the gutsy gelding." Several of his 10 owners have been profiled in newspapers and on TV shows that don't normally cover racing.
"You can't buy this marketing," McPeek said.
It's not just the horse that has America hooked. It's his story. He cost $75,000 -- cheap by thoroughbred standards; he's a gelding bred in New York; his owners are either retired or work in construction, catering or retail; and his trainer Barclay Tagg has toiled for decades in near-obscurity.
Yet those are the same reasons why Funny Cide has skeptics.
"People are not sure that this is the real deal," Lukas said. "He's going to have to earn that esteem in the industry."
Funny Cide's bid has juiced up the Belmont Stakes, which is less important nationally when a Triple Crown isn't on the line.
Lukas joked that New York Racing Association officials "clicked their heels" when Funny Cide won the Preakness by 9 3/4 lengths to keep his bid alive. Lukas' horse, Scrimshaw, finished third.
"If Scrimshaw were in front, they'd have got a little sick to their stomach," Lukas said.
Racing officials expect as many as 120,000 people will attend Saturday, which would shatter last year's record of 103,222.
But if different horses had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness this year, Lukas said, "We'd have 30,000 people here and they'd have the lowest rating in television we've ever had."
Although the Derby is an American institution, the Preakness and Belmont suffer by comparison, even though the Belmont, in its 135th year, is the oldest of the three.
Without Funny Cide's rags-to-possible-riches tale, Lukas said, "This is a really bland race. We don't have any marquee horses."
That's not a problem unique to the Belmont.
Some tracks have been forced to reduce purses because of lagging attendance and decreased daily wagering blamed on the soft economy. In some states, races fail to consistently attract full fields, making them less appealing to gamblers.
The convenience of Internet betting and a dramatic increase in casinos, slot machines and riverboat gambling nationwide also has cut into on-track attendance.
It remains to be seen whether Funny Cide's impact lasts longer than Saturday among average sports fans, many of whom have never been to a track or bet on horses.
Lukas and Frankel don't give the gelding much of a chance, even if he wins the Triple Crown.
"Instead of it being 15 minutes' news, it'll last a couple days. That's it," Lukas said. "In order for this to help the game, he has to come back and develop a fan base. He needs to keep going. If he just does it and drops out of sight, it won't be a big thing."
Lukas points out Funny Cide could become a trivia question, like his horse Charismatic who failed in a 1999 Triple bid.
"He isn't on everybody's refrigerator yet," he said.
But Frankel believes any boost, no matter how temporary, is good for racing.
"It brings out more people and more people get interested," he said. "Any publicity we get is good for the industry, bad or good."
Many thought the baseless accusation that Santos used an illegal electrical device to prod Funny Cide to victory in the Derby was another blow to a declining sport.
Frankel disagrees, pointing out that fans still came to see Mike Tyson after he bit off Evander Holyfield's ear and figure skating soared after Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee.
"It's not going to chase the gamblers away," he said. "It's like drug addicts, they know it's bad for them, but they come anyway."