BALTIMORE (AP) - Right now, there's only one question in the world of horse racing: Can Funny Cide do it?
It's been a quarter century since Affirmed beat Alydar and became the 11th horse to win the Triple Crown by sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Since then, eight horses took the first two but fell short in the Belmont.
Now a ninth will give it a go - a New York-bred gelding named Funny Cide. The Kentucky Derby winner stepped to the brink of greatness Saturday with a runaway 93/4-length victory in the Preakness.
"A great story is unraveling, and I hope it ends with a Triple Crown," Affirmed's jockey, Steve Cauthen, said Sunday. "The horse seems to be in great form. Everything is jelling at the right time - it's exactly how you want it."
The debate will continue until Belmont day, June 7.
So far, there aren't many doubters.
"He ran two bang-up races now, and if he can run back in the Belmont the way he ran in the Derby and Preakness, then he's got it," said trainer Bob Baffert, denied a Triple Crown three times by losses in the Belmont. "I'll be rooting for him."
Even Funny Cide's trainer, Barclay Tagg, ever the pessimist, sounded somewhat confident.
"There's going to be some fresh faces in, and our horse will have gone through a pretty good campaign by then, so that's a concern," Tagg said Sunday. "As long as he handles everything like he did the last few weeks, I can't see any problem with it."
The Belmont will offer the toughest test of all. At 11/2 miles, it is the longest Triple Crown race, a distance not commonly run in the United States.
"I have no clue how he'll run a mile and a half, but I have a feeling he'll handle it rather easily," Tagg said. "So far he's proven he can do it, but adding another quarter-mile onto it, anything can happen."
Several well-rested 3-year-olds will present a new set of challenges. Among them are Derby runner-up Empire Maker, who skipped the Preakness; Atswhatimtalknbout, fourth in the Derby; and Lone Star Derby winner Dynever, a rising star in his own right and set for his Triple Crown debut.
Also under consideration are Midway Road and Scrimshaw, the second- and third-place finishers in the Preakness; Ten Most Wanted, the Illinois Derby winner who was ninth in the Kentucky Derby; Most Feared, Outta Here and Ten Cents a Shine.
Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who rode Ten Cents a Shine to a ninth-place finish in the Preakness, will be aboard Empire Maker in the Belmont.
Bailey sized up Funny Cide's Preakness performance.
"His race was about as impressive as you can get, so it's hard to knock him," Bailey said. "But there are a couple of others who sat out the Preakness waiting for the Belmont. As good as he is, it's still going to be a tough race."
This will be the fifth time in the last seven years the Belmont plays host to a Triple Crown try. War Emblem stumbled at the start and finished eighth last year; Charismatic broke his foot in the stretch and finished third in '99; Real Quiet lost by nose in '98; and Silver Charm lost by three-quarters of a length in 1997.
The 25-year Triple Crown drought matches the longest in history. Citation won in 1948, and the next Triple Crown champion was Secretariat in 1973.
Others who failed in their bid to succeed Affirmed were Sunday Silence (1989), Alysheba (1987), Pleasant Colony (1981), and Spectacular Bid (1979).
While the race will be won on the track, Funny Cide already has become "the people's horse" thanks to the cast of characters surrounding him.
His owners are high school buddies from upstate New York who kicked in $5,000 to start Sackatoga Stable. His dour trainer worked for decades in relative anonymity. His jockey was questioned about his Derby ride. A gelding has never won the Triple Crown. Neither has a New York-bred horse.
"This horse has been the underdog," Baffert said. "He's coming home for the Belmont and the place will be packed. It's a great story."
Jockey Jose Santos, who last week was cleared of any wrongdoing for his ride in Derby, was back at Belmont on Sunday and greeted with cheers of "Triple Crown! Triple Crown!" - a 180-degree turnaround from the previous Sunday, when he was jeered by fans after a newspaper report speculated he had something in his hand other than a whip in the Derby.
Santos, based in New York, was moved by the tribute and said he expects a huge, partisan crowd for the Belmont. Last year, a record 103,222 packed the racetrack to root for War Emblem.
Funny Cide "likes the track and he trains on it every day," Tagg said. "He ran well on it last year (3-for-3). You'd like to have four or five weeks (to prepare) but he's a big stout horse and seems to be handling everything well."
Finish lines: Funny Cide returned to New York three hours after the Preakness, arriving at his barn at 1:15 a.m. Sunday. … Assistant trainer Robin Smullen said the gelding would take the next three days off before resuming jogging. … Funny Cide, with a bankroll of $1,889,385, is the second-leading New York-bred money earner, behind 7-year-old Say Florida Sandy, who has $2,074,409.
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