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'Funny Cide'  New York's Favorite Athlete


New Yorkers, and much of the United States, are in the throes of equine fever as they root for the New York-bred horse poised to be the first winner of the famous horse racing's Triple Crown in 25 years. "Funny Cide" has earned its venerable position as the city's favorite athlete.

All eyes will be on a four-legged, chestnut marvel named "Funny Cide" when he steps into Belmont park in New York on June 7 to compete the remaining jewel in U.S. horse racing's coveted Triple Crown.

If three-year-old "Funny Cide" dominates the competition, he will be the first horse in a quarter century to win all three prestigious races - the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. He will also become the twelfth horse to win, and the first gelding in racing history to earn the crown.

"New York is now a one-horse town and that horse is 'Funny Cide' winning the two big road games -- one in Kentucky and one in Maryland - and it's going to be a great day at Belmont Park on Saturday, June 7 when the New York hometown hero comes to Belmont Park," said Bill Nader, head of the New York Racing Association. "And clearly, when you look at New York and the landscape of New York today, he is the most popular athlete in the state and may now be the most popular individual in the State of New York."

Millions of television viewers tuned in to see "Funny Cide's" stunning nine-and-three-quarter-length victory at the Preakness in Baltimore, Maryland on May 17. His triumph was one-quarter-length shy of "Survivor's" 10-length win in the first Preakness in 1873.

The Preakness win was especially sweet for veteran jockey Jose Santos. It came less than a week after Kentucky Derby officials dismissed claims from a Miami newspaper report that Mr. Santos may have carried something other than his whip when he rode Funny Cide to victory at the Churchill Downs course in Kentucky on May 3.

As he crossed the finish line at the Preakness, Mr. Santos stood defiantly erect in his stirrups, touched his fingers to his lips, blew a kiss and then held up an open hand to show it was empty.

The forty-two-year old jockey from Chile says now that the controversy is behind him he can stop worrying and start preparing for the upcoming race at Belmont. "When the scandal come out I was kind of embarrassed because they were trying to ruin my reputation. I have a good reputation here in America and especially in Chile," he says. "I was embarrassed for my people. In the end everything turned out to be great. The horse ran a big race, he won like a champion. Plus I opened my hand to show everybody I was clean."

Neither hard work nor success are new to Mr. Santos. In 1992 at Belmont, a horse fell on top of him, breaking 11 bones, including his hip, right arm, and collar bone. After extensive surgery, he returned to riding six months later. In 1999, Mr. Santos won the Belmont Stakes with Lemondrop Kid. By September 2002, the well-known Chilean-born jockey ranked tenth in the United States, earning $7.5 million.

Mr. Santos says that although he has ridden a lot of winners, none are quite like "Funny Cide." "I've been riding for 27 years, and I've rode a lot of champions, especially in the 80's, and I think Funny Cide [is special], not because he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but since the moment I rode him for the first time I knew he was going to be a good horse," he says. "But I never thought he was going to be the best horse I ever rode in my life."

"Funny Cide's" trainer Barclay Tagg says the 2.4 kilometer Belmont Race will not be an easy one. "There will be some new horses there, some fresh faces. There are some that are well-bred for that kind of a distance. I think I'm holding a pretty good hand going into it. I don't think I'd trade in for any of them right now but I am cautious about it," he says. "There are some very nice horses that are going to show up there. And he'll have his work cut out for him."

"Funny Cide" is owned by Sackatoga Stable, which was started by a group of secondary school buddies from Upstate New York who each put in $5,000 to buy a thoroughbred.

"Funny Cide's" trainer says the horse is made to be a winner. "His main quality is he's fast as hell," says Mr. Tagg. "When we picked him out, he was a big, strong-looking colt. He looked he was developing in the right direction. He had all the qualities, he had a great big hind end, he was long and lean and tall, and very sound looking. And he just looked like a horse you could go somewhere with."

"Funny Cide's" workout regime includes a daily gallop, a breeze, or fast work out, every sixth day, and a leisurely walk or grazing in the afternoons.