Get ready for Funny Cide mania
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
It's such an appealing tale all the way around. Guys who grew up together in the middle of nowhere pony up $75,000 for a 2-year-old New York-bred gelding with an unfashionable pedigree. They entrust him to a crusty, 65-year-old trainer who never had a big horse and a 42-year-old rider whose glory days were in the distant past.
The trainer, Barclay Tagg, seems reluctant to go to the Kentucky Derby, where Funny Cide knocks off Empire Maker, the blueblood to whom many had conceded the Triple Crown. After Santos is cleared of baseless allegations that he carried an illegal device in the Derby, Funny Cide blows up the Preakness by 9 3/4 lengths. Audiences all over the world see Rita Santos screaming "C'mon, Funny!" while 8-year-old Jose Jr. yells "Daddy! Daddy!" Get out your handkerchiefs and prepare for chart-busting ratings. It's all Funny Cide, all the time.
The producers of the upcoming movie "Seabiscuit" are loving this. The racing gods have outdone themselves with another script about a people's horse. The long-barreled chestnut has won over hearts and minds all over North America, including people who had virtually no interest in horse racing. It's a lovefest, and the bandwagon is standing room only.
Someone with the Internet alias GoFunny emailed Santos: "I wanted to tell you how happy I am that you won the Derby and Preakness. I am a huge horse racing fan, but even people who [don't follow it] are excited. My brother-in-law watched the Preakness and went outside to his wife with tears in his eyes because the race was so emotional. My friend's mother, who never watches horse racing, watched the Preakness and was screaming for Funny Cide to win when you came down the stretch."
As Funny Cide crossed the wire at Pimlico, one of the happiest people in America was NYRA public relations director Glen Mathes, knowing there would be unprecedented interest in the Belmont Stakes and probably a record crowd. As Bobby Frankel, Empire Maker's trainer, said, "If they can't get 125,000 people there, they're not doing their job." With any kind of break from the weather, they might come close. Ca-ching!
Thousands who have never made a bet or visited a racetrack are planning an outing at beautiful Belmont Park on June 7 to see the 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion." They'll have to spend the day on their feet in the backyard or among the crush along the rail, because all seats are long gone. The nation's biggest track, usually so depressingly empty, will be like an anthill, and the media circus already has begun.
Most newspaper editors ignore thoroughbred racing, regarding it with contempt as an obsession of gamblers. Now even these tough-minded masters of the fact factories are swept up in the frenzy. "What's a gelding? Why is he a gelding? Will he win?" they ask. Dozens of stories are assigned on every possible angle.
It seems everybody is rooting for Funny Cide, burning with Triple Crown fever even though he's the fifth horse in seven years to come to the Belmont with a live ticket for immortality. Why has he aroused more passion than Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic and War Emblem did?
Despite winning two classics, he still has the underdog label and his cast of characters is fresh. Instead of slick celebrities Bob Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer is the low-key Tagg, an unknown outside racing until the Derby. Instead of a multimillionaire, the owners are upper-middle-class people who ride to the big races on a yellow school bus. Jackson Knowlton, head of Sackatoga Stable, is a gregarious little guy who says, "Call me Jack," in his upstate New York accent. It is impossible to imagine Empire Maker's owner, the Saudi prince Khalid Abdullah, putting someone at ease by saying, "Call me Khal."
Funny Cide's emergence is the best possible news for a sport chronically starved for attention. But could it last? The rider of the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978, thinks so.
"My opinion is that if Funny Cide could win the Triple Crown and can be around for racegoers to enjoy for the next two or three years, he could have a tremendous impact on our sport," Steve Cauthen said last week. "Particularly with 'Seabiscuit' coming out. I've heard great things about it, and I think it could have a major impact.
"Racing is like any other sport, it needs stars. And we need a star like Funny Cide big time, one that could be around for a while."
Maybe Cauthen is right, but I have my doubts. Even if Funny Cide becomes the 12th Triple Crown winner, I don't expect a significant carryover. I know many non-racing fans following this saga, and they'll watch the Belmont and root hard for Funny Cide. Some might even put a few bucks on him. A few will make their first trip to a track for the Belmont. Then they'll marvel at how much fun it was, read the papers the next day, and that will be it for all but a handful.
During Cigar's record-tying, 16-race winning streak from 1994-96, many racing journalists suggested he could bring thoroughbred racing back into the sports mainstream. That didn't happen, and his run lasted more than a year and a half. Superstars are in the spotlight on event days, which do draw huge crowds. Most are there because it's the cool place to be at the time and don't bet much. Few turn into regular horseplayers, the daily devotees who make racing go. Sad to say, those are the facts.
Still, that's no reason not to savor every moment of Funny Cide mania. Get into what's good, and hope that it lasts. Maybe he will pull off the sweep, and maybe Cauthen will be right. This time, I'd be very happy to be proven wrong.