Move over Derek Jeter, there's another New York-based athlete stealing the hearts of sports fans in the Big Apple. Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Funny Cide, along with his connections, owner Sackatoga Stable, trainer Barclay Tagg, and jockey Jose Santos, were honored during a luncheon Tuesday at Gallagher's Steak House.
Between 150 to 200 people showed up at the Manhattan restaurant to pay tribute to the New York-bred gelding, who will be looking to become the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years when he takes the gate for the June 7 Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
"New York is now a one-horse town." said Bill Nader, executive vice president of the New York Racing Association. "Funny Cide is the most popular athlete in New York State and most likely the most popular figure in all of New York State."
Tim Smith, National Thoroughbred Racing Association commissioner, and Barry Schwartz, chairman of the New York Racing Association, joined Nader in celebrating Funny Cide's quest to become the 12th Triple Crown winner.
"Funny Cide has given the whole country a lift, not only New York. It's (Belmont Stakes) going to be a great show," Smith said.
There have been eight near misses since 1978 when Affirmed swept the Triple Crown, including: Spectacular Bid in 1979; Pleasant Colony in 1981, Alysheba in 1987; Sunday Silence in 1989; Silver Charm in 1987; Real Quiet in 1998; Charismatic in 1999; and War Emblem last year in 2002.
Tagg, who called the Triple Crown experience fabulous said, "This is what you dream about and what you work for. I've worked for this for a long time. This horse is a gift from the heavens."
Although the Belmont will bring new faces and fresh horses, Tagg remains confident in Funny Cide's chances. "He'll have his work cut out for him, but I'm holding a pretty good hand. (Assistant trainer) Robin (Smullen) has done a tremendous job with him. She's the whole key to his success, no question about it."
Regarding the controversy surrounding a story published in the Miami Herald
following the Derby, Santos said he was more embarrassed than upset. "I wasn't upset with the press but embarrassed because they were trying to ruin my reputation," the Chilen-born jockey said. "I still have close ties to Chile and I felt embarrassed for the people there.
I was very happy this morning when my wife (Rita) told me the President of Chile (Ricardo Lagos Escobar) sent me a letter of congratulations."
Santos, who has called Funny Cide the best horse he has ever ridden, said about the upcoming race, "I thought the Preakness would be the most difficult, but the Belmont will be tough because of the fresh faces and all the best jocks will be trying to beat me. I have plenty of confidence in Funny Cide and the way he has been running I think he will do it again."