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Bosco’s Corner: Race makes for bummer at Belmont

How did it come to pass that I was a bundle of nerves and in a downright fever pitch over the running of the 135th Belmont Stakes? Be it media manipulation, the horrific weather or the music of Eminem, whatever the reason, I found myself rooting for Funny Cide to win.

Funny Cide, the New York-bred 3-year-old that is partially owned by Douglaston resident Eric Dattner, was the first gelding in history to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness coming into Saturday’s final leg of the Triple Crown.

Winning at Belmont, the horse’s home track, was supposedly next to a mortal lock for Funny Cide. Whether it was the mere possibility of the 25-year drought ending or the experts really believing the horse could pull it off, nearly everyone and their mother thought the Triple Crown would finally happen in 2003.

Of course that didn’t happen. After weeks of anticipation, Funny Cide failed to win the coveted prize, surrendering its early lead to Empire Maker on the final turn and eventually finishing third behind Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted.

Empire Maker, the favorite going into the Kentucky Derby, was soundly booed at the race’s conclusion, with the more than 100,000 in attendance voicing their disappointment that the hometown horse could not hold on to the win.

But it should have been no surprise to anyone that Funny Cide was unable to pull it off. In the history of the Triple Crown, 18 horses have managed to capture the first two legs of the prestigious trifecta before falling short at the Belmont. Of those 18, half have come since the last time a horse won the Triple Crown — Affirmed’s classic duels with Alydar in 1978.

The first to come up short in that stretch was Spectacular Bid in 1979, which finished third at Belmont. Two years later Pleasant Colony also took third. In 1987, Alydar’s offspring, Alysheba, had a chance to win what his father couldn’t, but settled for fourth after victories at Chuchill Downs and Pimlico.

Sunday Silence took second at the Belmont in 1989, the last horse for eight years to have a chance to win the Triple Crown before Silver Charm’s attempt in 1997. Both Silver Charm and Real Quite in 1998 finished second. Charismatic also failed at Belmont in 1999.

Last year it was War Emblem that missed the boat, finishing eighth after stumbling out of the blocks, the worst Belmont finish of any of the horses that had won the Derby and Preakness.

All that failure led up to this year and Funny Cide, the underdog horse that became a favorite, not just on the board but in the hearts of thousands of New Yorkers who packed the park Saturday.

To be honest, I don’t know how I got swept up in the Funny Cide mania. Like everyone else in the weeks leading up to the Belmont, I could not escape the seemingly constant stream of commercials, television shows and news reports about the Triple Crown — so much so that I felt I had a personal stake in the horse’s winning.

Don’t let anyone tell you that media manipulation is a figment of your imagination. I mean, it’s a horse, for Pete’s sake. After the race I actually felt bad for Funny Cide, like I was sharing in his disappointment or something.

Thank goodness it took all of about five seconds for me to realize that in all likelihood the horse never realized he had lost a race and probably would have preferred it had Jose Santos gotten off his back a lot sooner so he could get back to chomping on his oat bag.

I am no expert on horse racing, but heading into the race I heard one jockey say he wanted his horse to take the lead early for the simple reason that, like humans, horses don’t like having mud thrown at their faces. So when Funny Cide burst out of the No. 4 shoot to take the lead — ahead of the field of six — I thought it was a good thing.

The horse led for the better part of the race and seemed strong around the back stretch, holding off second-place Empire Maker until the final turn, when Funny Cide seemed to run out of steam and was easily overtaken, falling back to third when all was said and done.

It could have been that Funny Cide left its best stuff on the track during practice runs earlier in the week, as some published reports have claimed, or the terrible weather and muddy track conditions, or maybe the 1.5-mile distance at the Belmont, by far the longest of the three Triple Crown races, that spoiled the day.

But the bottom line is no one will ever know. Funny Cide made a believer out of me, at least for a little while. And I’m sure I’m not alone, as the Belmont crown clearly proved. When it comes to horse racing, there are a scant few who really know what’s going on, and I am not one of them.

Still, it was great fun. Media manipulation or not, the anticipation created in the weeks prior to the Belmont put horse racing in the spotlight again and, after all, there are worse things people can focus on, such as the state of the economy, terrorism and the Mets.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

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