What a Year for a Triple Crown Assault

What a Year for a Triple Crown Assault
Photo:
Trophy awarded winner of the Visa Triple Crown.
By Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist

They have come in all sizes and colors, with vastly different personalities, and every conceivable advantage.

There have been big ones and small ones, silver, black and brown ones, the bashful and the born entertainers. They have been piloted by wizards, trained by superstars and owned by blue bloods, princes and captains of American industry.

Yet the thing each has been remembered for, finally, was failing to get the job done.

For the fifth time in seven years, a thoroughbred left Baltimore in the gloaming with an eye on New York and the chance to do what hasn't been done since 1978: win the Triple Crown.

None of them, though, has tickled the sporting imagination the way this one has.

For the past month, the sport of kings has been hijacked by its subjects and court jesters. Funny Cide has a decidedly commoner's pedigree. His connections are definitely hoi polloi -- fronted by a handful of high school buddies who kicked in $5,000 to start an ownership group that, while not quite threadbare, has been spotted wearing some of the worst threads ever glimpsed in the priciest sections of the grandstands.

As if more proof were needed to show just how much a ``horse of the people'' Funny Cide has become, look at how profoundly he's already affected the people around him.

The big red gelding has breathed new life into jockey Jose Santos' flagging fortunes and completely turned around trainer Barclay Tagg's view of the world.

After the horse won the Kentucky Derby, Tagg, a self-avowed eternal pessimist, spent two weeks remembering all the bad times in what up to that point had been an otherwise forgettable career. And soon after the son of Distorted Humor out of Belle's Good Cide claimed the second jewel of the Triple Crown with a near-record Preakness win, Tagg was asked to recount the whole sad story.

``Well, these last few weeks have been extraordinary,'' he said through a sheepish grin. ``They have made up for all of the other lows.''

Then, just a few minutes later, the trainer caught himself talking about Funny Cide's chances to complete the most difficult trifecta in sports -- words that 30-plus years of scuffling in the business had convinced Tagg would never cross his lips.

``He's shown he has stamina, and he's shown he has speed,'' Tagg said. ``He ought to be ideal for it.''

And what a year this would be for it.

The last horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont was Affirmed, who held off the noblest of rivals, Alydar, by narrowing margins over the span of five weeks a quarter-century ago. That gap equals the longest drought ever between Triple Crown winners; the last sweep before Secretariat's transcendent romp in 1973 was Citation's summer of '48.

But the stars are aligned more fortuitously than that.

The buzz that accompanied author Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book ``Seabiscuit'' grows louder as the release date for the movie of the same title nears. ``The dreams of a nation rode on a long shot,'' the trailer goes, harkening back to a time when horse racing dueled only with baseball and boxing for the attention of the sporting public.

Even a sweep by Funny Cide won't bring those days back. But it can restore, if only for an afternoon or two, the delicious anticipation of seeing a performer take his game to a level where only history can provide a proper context for judging. (And who wouldn't be rooting to see a bunch of regular guys pick up the $5 million Triple Crown bonus that is offered every year by Visa USA but has never been claimed.)

Besides, since the gelding won't be whisked off to the breeding shed anytime soon, chances are Funny Cide, like Hall of Fame greats Forego and John Henry, could stick around and race long enough to make those afternoons last a few extra years.

So keep your fingers crossed. The best and the brightest in the business are doing the same.

Late Saturday, along the runway to the paddock, trainer Bob Baffert surveyed the mournful gray sky above Pimlico and smiled.

Funny Cide beat one of his colts, Indian Express, at the Derby, and had just bested another, Senor Swinger, at the Preakness. Baffert was through trying to beat the gelding and preparing to jump on his bandwagon instead.

Baffert knows only too well what awaits Tagg and his horse around the bend. Three times since 1997, with Silver Charm, then Real Quiet and last year with War Emblem, Baffert arrived at Belmont with a shot at the Triple, the best of everything and the desire to do right by the horse, his owners, the handicappers who pack the joint on the first Saturday in June and especially the game itself.

``I didn't realize until last year, maybe, what it takes out of you. Your life is under glass, you open yourself up to every kind of second-guessing, your voice is shot, everything still has to go perfect for you to have a chance -- and then you get beat by a nose,'' he said.

Which is exactly what happened to Baffert with Real Quiet in 1998.

``That's why I can't wait to get home,'' he said, ``and watch somebody else go through it on TV.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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