As the thoroughbred industry remains under siege, reeling from reports of horses used and abused and treated to the kind of milkshakes you can't order in a Baskin Robbins, the Belmont Stakes does not offer much in the way of a feel-good antidote.
I'll Have Another might become the 12th Triple Crown winner, and the first since Affirmed in 1978, but the colt is trained by Doug O'Neill, a man forever fending off allegations and suspicions and one staring at a 45-day suspension. O'Neill stands accused of no wrongdoing with this horse, but let's face it: Rooting for him will be like rooting for a college basketball coach being chased by the NCAA from one end of March to the other.
So the sport could use a Seabiscuit-sized fairy tale right about now, a reminder that some horse stories have happy beginnings and endings. It could use Funny Cide on a dry track at the Belmont rather than the mud pit that swallowed the chestnut gelding whole in 2003.
Funny Cide is the son of Distorted Humor, who happens to be the grandfather of I'll Have Another. Though the Triple Crown contenders past and present are bonded by blood, they arrived at the Belmont with little else in common.
A zillion-to-one shot, Funny Cide had captured the nation's heart by becoming the first New York-bred winner of the Kentucky Derby and by honoring that performance at the Preakness. His owners weren't barons, princes or sheikhs, but a bunch of small-town Joes from upstate who rode a yellow school bus from race to race.
The journey had started on Memorial Day 1995, on the porch of J.P. Constance, an optician and two-term mayor of Sackets Harbor, N.Y., population 1,436. He wanted his buddies to kick in $5,000 each to start their own stable, and a construction guy named Harold Cring had balked.
"I'd rather take my five thousand and put it in a tin can and bury it in my backyard," Cring had said the day before. "At least I'd know it would be there 10 years from now."
Constance wouldn't let up. "I told him, 'When you die, do you want your tombstone to say you're an owner of a thoroughbred or a chicken?'" Constance recalled the other day by phone. "Harold whipped out his checkbook, and he's thanked me every day since."
Out of Sackatoga Stable came Funny Cide, a small, unimposing horse bought for a song. Somehow he made it to the Kentucky Derby, even if one of his owners didn't want to book the trip. Constance didn't care to spend $1,000 for the required three-night hotel stay in Churchill Downs; he hadn't spent that much on his 10-day honeymoon. After his wife talked him into going, Constance put 20 bucks on Funny Cide to show. Never was a horseman so happy to underrate a horse.
They won the Preakness and arrived at Funny Cide's home court, the Belmont, "as a band of rock stars," Constance recalled. On the day of the big race, the boys from Sackets Harbor, the boys on the yellow school bus, were stuck in traffic when admiring New Yorkers approached and wished them the best of luck. Gus Williams, a Funny Cide owner in a Derby hat, plaid jacket and yellow pants, threw a 20-dollar bill out the window at a fan and asked him to buy a busload of beer. The man ran into a convenience store and returned to the gridlocked bus with a 12-pack.
But there would be no victory party at this Belmont, just like there wasn't one for War Emblem the year before. It poured all day, and Funny Cide hated the track. He was still tired from the first two legs, still tired from a blistering workout four days earlier, and two fresher horses that had skipped the Preakness -- Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted -- hit the finish line before Funny Cide did.
"On a reasonably dry track," Constance said, "I really believe we would've won."
The former Sackets Harbor mayor thought the race should've been canceled and thought his team probably should've scratched Funny Cide when it wasn't. "Under the circumstances today, with the spotlight on horse injuries and the overuse of horses," Constance said, "if those conditions were present, I suspect people would think twice about running these magnificent animals on that type of track."
Fans cheered Funny Cide on his way back to the receiving barn, where his assistant trainer, Robin Smullen, was patting him and congratulating for a job well done. "You don't want to let him hear disappointment in your voice," she said that day, "because then he gets disappointed in himself. ... There's only been 11 horses who've won the Triple Crown in history, so he hasn't done anything wrong and he isn't going anywhere. America loves him and will continue to love him because he's going to be around a long time."
As it turned out, Funny Cide won the Jockey Club Gold Cup as a 4-year-old, and a few races here and there on the sport's senior tour. His owners believe he lost at least one race to a thoroughbred that received the infamous milkshake, a concoction of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes fed into a horse's stomach through a tube and said to combat fatigue.
"I think it's pitiful," Constance said, "and we would absolutely, positively never do something like that. Often we'd lose a race and there would be rumors the winner was juiced or had a milkshake. One horse we ran against, the trainer was known for it and they actually assigned guards around the stables to be sure nobody came in with injections or milkshakes."
The proprietors of Sackatoga Stable retired Funny Cide in 2007 after a win at the Wadsworth Memorial Handicap on home-state turf. They thought their gelding had had enough.
"I could never forgive myself or any of my partners if we whipped that horse into a frenzy to keep winning," Constance said. "That horse gave us all an experience that was priceless. How unconscionable would it have been if we ran him into an injury?"
Funny Cide lives at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, where he's part of the attraction's Hall of Champions. People still approach his owners to say how much the horse touched them and how badly they wanted him to win the Belmont.
"We were just a bunch of regular guys having the time of our lives," Cring said. "We were working people with a horse that was a worker, a fighter, and people related to us."
Even now, whenever Cring is having a bad day on his construction site, he plays a recording of Funny Cide's stretch drives at the Derby and Preakness on his cell phone. Everybody loves a long shot.
A year after Funny Cide, Smarty Jones nearly finished off a clean sweep at the Belmont only to surrender the lead in the end. Big Brown was another horse that couldn't win the Triple Crown, in 2008, and now I'll Have Another takes his shot at ending the drought.
Constance and Cring said they are betting on Doug O'Neill's horse because they would like to see history and because I'll Have Another is a blood relative of Funny Cide's.
"If he wins Saturday," Cring said, "it will justify in my mind that we did have a Triple Crown winner in Funny Cide and that things just didn't go our way."
Only nine years ago in the mud, Funny Cide found a way to win in defeat. He might not turn out to be the best horse story of his generation. Just the purest.