Gravy For The Biscuit As a promising rivalry fizzled, and Funny Cide faltered in the Triple Crown, a Depression-era hero came charging from out of the past

December 29, 2003

The choice is clear now. There is but one worthy candidate for
Horse of the Year. The honor must go to a plucky overachiever who
was bought cheap by eccentric owners, turned into a champion by a
stubborn, old school trainer and ridden into history by a skilled
jockey desperate to prove himself. Millions watched this horse
run and rooted him home. It doesn't matter that he has been dead
for nearly six decades, the Horse of the Year for 2003 has to be
... Seabiscuit. ¶ The Biscuit was not the only People's Horse
this year. Another one lived and breathed and told a story that
was eerily similar to Seabiscuit's. Funny Cide is a New
York-bred gelding with 10 owners, six of them high school pals
from Sackets Harbor, N.Y., who had jumped blindly into the
racing game in the mid-1990s, investing $5,000 each over beers
and barbecue. They called themselves Sackatoga Stable, and Funny
Cide was their ninth purchase in eight years, at a cost of
$75,000.

Trained by Barclay Tagg (every bit as curmudgeonly as
Seabiscuit's trainer, Tom Smith) and ridden by Jose Santos (a
jock who had once been among the best but now craved respect just
as Red Pollard had done aboard Seabiscuit), Funny Cide started
this season as an unknown. In terms of class he was thought to be
far below Empire Maker, the Kentucky Derby favorite. But on the
first Saturday in May he rushed to the lead at the top of the
stretch, and as a crowd of some 150,000 reached full throat in
anticipation of Empire Maker's finishing kick, Funny Cide did not
give way. In fading spring sunlight, he was cloaked in a blanket
of roses.

Two weeks later he romped to a 9 3/4-length victory in the
Preakness and then headed to the Belmont with a chance to become
the 12th Triple Crown winner, his owners following in his wake,
riding famously in a fleet of school buses that they called their
"yellow stretch limos."

Funny Cide's story unfolded not long before the movie Seabiscuit
hit the screen. Gleaned from Laura Hillenbrand's book about the
ugly duckling who became a Depression-era hero, the lavish film
centered on the stirring Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race of
1938 and Seabiscuit's 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, a dramatic
comeback from injuries to both horse and rider. The beleaguered
racing industry tried unashamedly to ride the popularity of
Seabiscuit into the battle for the consumer dollar.

It seemed a plausible strategy, but in the end the old horse's
story proved too large. Seabiscuit beat War Admiral and won the
Big 'Cap. Funny Cide couldn't complete his fairy tale. He was
thrashed in the Belmont by none other than Empire Maker. No
rivalry was born; the horses never met again. Empire Maker was
beaten at Saratoga and retired to stud, the victim of foot
problems. Funny Cide ran indifferently in losing the Haskell at
Monmouth and was ill and missed the Travers at Saratoga. His
entry into the Breeders' Cup Classic bore the faint scent of
desperation; he finished second to last.

Seabiscuit, meanwhile, ran well into the fall. It made more than
$120 million in theaters but did little to help fill racetracks.
In showing the beauty of the sport against the backdrop of an era
of jam-packed grandstands and banner headlines, Seabiscuit
underscored the diminished state of modern racing. A ghost horse
brought fans to the races, but those races were run on screen
number 7 at the cineplex, where the sky was always blue, the
track fast and the endings perfect.

B/W PHOTO: AP MOVIE STAR Seabiscuit's story did boffo box office, butracetracks didn't get a lift.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)