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December 22, 2014

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Columnist Dean Juipe: Universal rule: Root for the Triple Crown

Dean Juipe's column appears Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. His boxing notebook appears Thursday. Reach him at [email protected] or (702) 259-4084.

Fifth in a race in Florida.

Third his next time out, in Louisiana.

Second in his third race of 2003, in New York.

These results are what makes Funny Cide the least likely Triple Crown winner in memory, if not in the 128-year history of linking horse racing's three greatest races.

And yet when the bell rings Saturday for the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y., Funny Cide will be both a betting and sentimental favorite to complete the sweep and break a 25-year drought.

Admit it, unless you have money on one of his five competitors, you want to see the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion do it. You want to see him win.

It's universal: Everyone does.

In respect to its record book, horse racing is nothing at all like other sports. For instance, any number of us would just as soon have never seen Babe Ruth's single-season home run record toppled, or Jim Brown's NFL career rushing record erased, or Gordie Howe's NHL career goal-scoring mark obliterated.

We appreciate the new record setters but we were fond of the old standards.

But in horse racing -- and maybe track and field -- it's always a pleasure to add a name to history. And Funny Cide is poised for a most unlikely ascent into our hearts.

Purchased for a mere $75,000 a year ago by his team of 10 owners, the gelding was enjoying little more than a respectable career as the season worked its way to Churchill Downs. Going off at 13-1 after three so-so finishes to open the year, many expected him to be an also-ran against the tough Derby field.

But then he won.

And then he came back and won easily in the Preakness.

And now, against a depleted field, a wonderful opportunity is at hand. Funny Cide, a laughable Triple Crown prospect two months ago, might just have the last laugh.

Surely the six-horse field works to his advantage, as does this historical footnote: Of the previous 11 Triple Crown winners, each faced no more than seven rivals in the Belmont. Affirmed, the last Triple Crown champion, had to beat only four others in his 1978 date with destiny.

Additionally, it's said that Funny Cide is healthy and workout reports have him frisky and at ease back in his home state. He has had a nice rest, he hasn't had to endure the rigors of travel and he's even money to win his third consecutive race.

And yet we have been teased like this before.

Often, and recently, as a matter of fact.

War Emblem last year, Charismatic in 1999, Real Quiet in 1998, Silver Charm in 1997 -- each of these remarkable horses won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and arrived in Elmont as odds-on favorites. To varying degrees, they personified the commonly held image of legendary champions, possessing, as they all did, terrific speed, strength and heart.

Any and all seemingly had the ability to win the Triple Crown, yet none of them did.

As a result, what was once a curious gap between Triple Crown champions has stretched to an uncomfortable limit. If Funny Cide does not win Saturday, the drought will be extended to a full 25 years and will become the longest dry spell of its kind in history.

Empire Maker is the horse likely standing in Funny Cide's way and the oddity is that it could have easily been the other way around. He's the one with the pedigree, the one who was the Derby favorite at 5-2 and the one who was projected to have the best shot at the Triple Crown.

Now he's looking to salvage his reputation at the expense of a less-heralded colt who appeared to be just one of many a few weeks ago.

A great race is expected. Millions of dollars will be wagered, thousands of parties will be held and everyone from those in the stands at Belmont to those in the sports books of Las Vegas to those gathered around their televisions at home will strain to see this most fascinating spectacle.

And, funny thing, almost each and every one of us will be transfixed by a horse we barely know.

Yet if telepathy has anything to do with it, Funny Cide will respond to the excitement with the ride of his life. He'll see to it that he'll be fondly recalled.

He'll make the type of indelible impression that only passion and a superlative champion can provide.

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