More gained than lost
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
ELMONT, N.Y. -- At a racetrack where most seats rarely encounter a rear end, every one was sold weeks ago, with scalpers getting more than $300 apiece for choice ones. The spacious backyard was like an anthill, crawling with racegoers. It was big doings in the Big Town, and the only place to be in North America on Saturday was beautiful Belmont Park.
A slogan of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders is "Get with the program," and almost everybody was. Most in the crowd of 101,864 had come to root for the home team – Funny Cide, trainer Barclay Tagg and jockey Jose Santos -- as the New York-bred gelding tried to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first in 25 years. Anyone hoping for an upset in the 135th Belmont Stakes was badly out of step, a racing heretic. Infidel! Victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness had turned Funny Cide into a culture hero, even for millions who had little or no interest in thoroughbred racing.
"He's got a lot of fans," Tagg said. "I was in the track kitchen and a fellow handed me a stack of letters addressed to Funny Cide. You don't get that every day. You don't get Funny Cides every day, either. It's a great thing for New York and a great thing for racing."
Beneath a sea of umbrellas, there were Funny Cide hats, signs, shirts and "I love Funny Cide" buttons everywhere. Instead of the usual 12,000 on a spring Saturday, the Cult of the Gelding packed the place despite a steady rain that began at 9:15 in the morning and never let up. Nothing would stop his worshippers from sharing his moment of truth. Hail, Funny Cide!
As NBC announcer Tom Hammond said Wednesday, "As I checked into an Orlando hotel last weekend, the bellman, doorman and the desk clerk all wanted to talk about Funny Cide and the chance he had of winning the Triple Crown ... As I flew around the country, [it] was the same way. It seems like that's what everyone has on their mind on these days in the sporting world."
Even though Funny Cide was the fifth horse in the past seven years with a chance to sweep, none of the others came close to matching his mass appeal. The passion he's aroused reminds me of the unconditional love for the Miracle Mets on their way to the 1969 world championship. Little old ladies who didn't know a baseball game had nine innings were living and dying on every pitch in that insane October.
It's a desperate, uncertain world, and most people feel the need to plug into something bigger than themselves. Even hard-edged New Yorkers are not immune, and they glommed on big time to Funny Cide mania. It's as if he's one of them, a four-legged, chestnut working man who's grabbed glory they can never know, so living vicariously through his heroics is irresistible.
"We're sitting on one of the most eagerly anticipated sporting events in months," Hammond said. "It's because the horse has sort of established himself as an underdog. He's not royally bred. He is a gelding. He was bred in New York, not in Kentucky. Not owned by a millionaire or an Arab sheik, but by a bunch of working men. So he's sort of everyman's horse.
"For TV, this is the ultimate reality show."
Along the way, reality has gotten a bit blurred, and only alienated sorts like me feel the urge to point that out. Funny Cide is a New York-bred basically on a technicality, because he was born in Saratoga Springs. His pedigree has nothing of New York in it. He was conceived in the bluegrass country of Kentucky. His sire (Distorted Humor) was bred and raced in Kentucky, and his dam (Belle's Good Cide) was an Oklahoma-bred who raced in the Midwest. She was vanned back to New York and gave birth to Funny Cide there, so he's a New York-bred. Actually, he's really a New York foal, but why let the facts get in the way of a great story? If he had been sired by any of the third-rate stallions that stand in New York, there's no way he ever would have come this far.
True, most of his owners come from small towns and work for a living, but they're all well-to-do. It's not as if some unemployed factory workers scraped up their last dollars and bought a broken-down farm animal that turned into Pegasus.
Also, why did Tagg get a pass for pulling a fast one in Funny Cide's final workout? Instead of working him at 8:30 Tuesday morning, as he told the media, he brought him out at 5:30, when hardly anybody was there. Even the Daily Racing Form acted as if it was a great joke, with a banner headline "Straight Out of 'Seabiscuit'." Wasn't it clever and cute how Tagg lied to everybody? If Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas or Bobby Frankel had done that, they would have been ripped unmercifully. Instead, the journalists on Funny Cide's bandwagon winked and giggled.
In lovefests, as in war, truth also can be the first casualty.
I can hear you saying, "That's enough negative ranting, Eddie Boy. Why don't you keep it to yourself, you obnoxious voice crying in the wilderness?"
Forgive me, friends. I'm just an aging cynic with an annoying obsession of trying to tell the truth. That's why I wanted to become a writer, not a PR person.
All right, let's cut to the chase. Time to forget the back stories, because only raw emotion and the quest for immortality mattered when the gates opened and Funny Cide tried to make history. It didn't happen, but he's still loved by millions. In defeat, his fans will embrace him that much more. Hopefully, there will be more battles with Empire Maker, maybe in the Haskell and the Travers.
"I just feel bad for all the people who were pulling for him," Tagg said.
They'll get over it, and Funny Cide still will be their hero. What they gained the past few months meant a lot more than what they lost yesterday.
"I'm not feeling disappointed at all about this horse," Santos said. "He had a great run. I've never seen anything like this, with a hundred thousand people out here cheering for him.
"I'm very proud of him."