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August 1, 2014

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Cide show is main event

AT A GLANCE

When: Saturday, 3:38 p.m.

Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.

Distance: 1 1/2 miles

TV: NBC, Ch. 3

Total purse: $1 million Field: Six 3-year-olds

There are very few moments in life when one knows in advance that they are on the threshold of being witness to history. Anticipating something, someone or some achievement that will be a cornerstone memory of a lifetime. When all the elements come together. The place, the people, the competition and the event for a great moment, a moment that will stand the very test of time.

That place will be Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y., the event will be the Grade I Belmont Stakes, the people will be in mass -- along with a select group from Sacketts Harbor, N.Y., trainer Barclay Tagg and jockey Jose Santos -- and the time will be approximately 3:38 p.m. PDT Saturday when five brave runners will face Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Funny Cide once around the 1 1/2-mile track for $1 million.

Should the New York-bred gelding pull off another victory against the surviving sophomores set to challenge him, the moment will be crowning a 12th Triple Crown winner in his Big Apple backyard and a $5 million bonus from Visa.

An event that will be memorable. Not only for the state of horse racing, but, for the state of New York. Transcending the limited exposure extended the sport beyond its boundaries into mainstream Americana.

Funny Cide comes into the third jewel of the Triple Crown as the favorite to end a 25-year drought since Affirmed became a household name as the 11th Triple Crown winner in 1978.

But, there have been eight horses since Affirmed who have gotten to Belmont with the Triple Crown on the line. Why, then, does this feel like the time, place and moment for history to crown No. 12?

A quick look back at those who have failed since 1978 leads a persuading path to a Triple Crown success this year.

Four of the eight were beaten by horses they defeated in previous Triple Crown races. Alysheba was beaten by Bet Twice in 1987, Sunday Silence by Easy Goer in 1989, Silver Charm by Touch Gold in 1997 and Real Quiet by Victory Gallop in 1998.

This year that category applies to three of Funny Cide's five challengers. Ten Most Wanted, who was beaten almost 8 lengths in the Derby and did not compete in the Preakness Stakes. Scrimshaw, who has been beaten by a combined 10 1/2 lengths by Funny Cide in the Derby and Preakness. And, beaten Kentucky Derby favorite Empire Maker, who finished runner-up while running on a sore foot.

Of those three, Empire Maker seems the most dangerous to deny Funny Cide racing immortality. The royally bred son of 1990 Kentucky Derby and Horse of the Year Unbridled has been training with purpose for the rematch. Skipping the Preakness Stakes in favor of rest and rejuvenation for the Belmont Stakes, Empire Maker has healed nicely from his nagging foot problem and has registered four solid drills since his Derby appearance. Trained by four-time Eclipse Award winner Bobby Frankel with a five-week respite may bode well for a turnaround result.

It should be noted that along with Funny Cide, who is a perfect 3-for-3 at Belmont Park, Empire Maker returns to the scene of his sparkling debut maiden victory last October. He is the main danger to spoil the Triple Crown bid of Funny Cide.

Four others, since 1978, have been beaten by fresh faces in the Belmont Stakes. Of those, only Pleasant Colony -- beaten in 1981 by Summing -- had no real excuse for his loss. Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin in his stall the morning of the race when he was beaten by Coastal in 1979. Charismatic broke down strides after crossing the finish line in a heartbreaking defeat to Lemon Drop Kid in 1999 and War Emblem stumbled badly at the start of last year's Belmont Stakes to lose all chance at the Triple Crown while checking in eighth to long shot Sarava.

This year only two fall into that category. Supervisor finished a well-beaten third over a sloppy track in the Peter Pan Stakes for his long-shot chance here. This former optional-claiming winner would be a shocker.

Dynever, however, poses a formidable chance at a newcomer upset. The son of Dynaformer would relish a muddy or sloppy track on Saturday. He has reeled off three impressive victories since a debut runner-up effort in February at Gulfstream Park. A solid victory in Gulfstream's Aventura Stakes was followed by his recent Lone Star Derby win, a victory in which he overcame much trouble to gain.

Another factor is the toll the grueling series takes on its competitors. In 1969, with the Triple Crown waiting in New York, trainer Johnny Longden wanted to bypass the Belmont with Majestic Prince. Noting a significant weight loss for his Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, he was overruled by owner Frank McMahon. Majestic Prince broke down in his Belmont Stakes defeat and never raced again.

But Funny Cide has blossomed as the series moved through Kentucky and Baltimore. In a recent interview on the "Race Day Las Vegas" radio show, assistant trainer and exercise rider Robin Smullen said that Funny Cide has gained weight and filled out since his Derby win May 3. She also relayed that his sharp 5-furlong drill of :57:4 on Tuesday over the Belmont strip was as easy as it was fast, referring to the racing adage of "fast horses work fast and run fast."

He has enjoyed being back home at Belmont Park and will take his home field advantage to the starting gate on Saturday afternoon.

And, then there is that Hollywood storyline. A group of school chums from a small upstate town pooling small change and taking on the big city establishment. Add a low-key, self-confident steeplechase refugee trainer with a jockey who had to fight off accusations of cheating in America's most famous horse race and you have the Seabiscuit sequel. Throw in the character and passion of the hometown crowd of New Yorkers and the fact that Funny Cide will be racing beyond his sophomore year and you have the makings of a Belmont Stakes for the ages.

Now all Funny Cide has to do is write another chapter in the "Test Of Champions" -- with the blessing of the racing Gods, that is. Funny Cide just seems to be on the right side of history, this time.

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