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Ray Paulick
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He may not be as famous as female golfer Annika Sorenstam, but Triple Crown hopeful Funny Cide is a far more recognizable name than Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran--at least in this country. And it's doubtful Funny Cide will get a $90-million endorsement deal from Nike like high school basketball sensation LeBron James, but, hey, he could have a beer named after him. Not many sports heroes can make that claim.

How popular is this year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) winner? Judging from the news coverage picked up by Internet search engine Google, the Sackatoga Stable runner is about as close to being a household name as anyone in horse racing can get. Of course, that was probably helped by the Jose Santos phantom photo controversy.

A total of 5,070 references were discovered by "Googling" Funny Cide on the news search portion of Google.com. Only Sorenstam, who made a historic appearance against men at a PGA Tour event in Texas last week, had wider recent coverage. A Sorenstam search at Google.com produced 6,430 references. Incidentally, Kenny Perry, who won the Bank of America Colonial after Sorenstam missed the cut, had just 1,090 news references.

De Ferran, the Brazilian racecar driver who won the Indy 500, was listed in 1,960 news articles, demonstrating in part how far the race has fallen in popularity. The ABC telecast of the Indy 500 earned a 5.1 overnight rating, lower than overnights for this year's Derby (7.7) or Preakness (5.6), and down 38% over the last eight years.

Roger Clemens, the New York Yankees pitcher who was going for his 300th career victory on Memorial Day, has gotten lots of ink lately but his 3,070 Google references fall well short of Funny Cide. So does Hoopster James, who was in the news as a result of his Nike deal and because of the NBA draft lottery that determined where he will begin his professional career. His search yielded 2,910 news stories.

Even Black Ruby, the most famous racing mule in history, was no match for Funny Cide. Despite a match race against arch rival Taz at Los Alamitos on May 23, Black Ruby had just nine news references at Google.com.

The intensive coverage of Funny Cide, his owners, Sackatoga Stable, along with trainer Barclay Tagg and jockey Jose Santos, is good news for horse racing. It's also good news for one of racing's most important sponsors, VISA USA, whose top executives want dearly to see a Triple Crown winner so they can hand over a $5-million bonus check during the national telecast on NBC Sports.

VISA, however, hasn't had that much of a ride on Funny Cide's media coattails. Only 210 references were found on a Google.com news search combining the names Funny Cide and VISA. A sponsorship search combining Sorenstam and Bank of America, the title sponsor of the PGA's Colonial tournament, produced 1,810 matches.

Let's not weep for the credit card company, though. In five of the last seven years, a horse has come to the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) with a chance to win the $5-million VISA Triple Crown Challenge.

It's safe to say that most people want to see Funny Cide pull off this Triple Crown. He would be the first gelding to win it, the first New York-bred, the first to have a beer named after him, and the first to be owned by a group of people who ride to the track together in a school bus. "Triple Crown winner" will have a special ring to it whenever Funny Cide races, and the hope is he will have a long and productive career.

But even if he loses, Funny Cide will not soon be forgotten. He's taken his 10 owners, his trainer, and his jockey on the ride of a lifetime. More than that, he's helped give the sport new exposure, and made Thoroughbred ownership seem a lot less intimidating and a lot more fun than any horse in history.

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