Gary Stevens has experienced the bittersweet in the drama that is the Triple Crown.
In 1997, Silver Charm, with Stevens aboard, missed becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner when Touch Gold closed with a rush on the outside to win the Belmont Stakes by three-quarters of a length.
A year later, in 1998, it was Stevens who roused Victory Gallop from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to overtake Real Quiet by a nose in the final strides of the Belmont, thus denying Real Quiet of Triple Crown immortality.
Stevens also won the 1995 Belmont on Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch.
Whether the 40-year-old Hall of Fame jockey has a mount in this year’s Belmont remains to be seen, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be cheering for the New York-bred gelding Funny Cide, who seeks to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 in the 135th edition of the Belmont Stakes on June 7.
"I like his chances," said Stevens, who didn’t have the best of trips in finishing sixth on Buddy Gil in the Kentucky Derby, beaten nearly six lengths by Funny Cide. "It looks like he’s still improving and he looks like the best 3-year-old out there to me. Until they beat him, he is the best 3-year-old."
Like many others, Stevens was somewhat amazed at the ease with which Funny Cide won the Preakness, roaring home 93/4 lengths in front, after winning the Derby by considerably less, only 13/4 lengths over favored Empire Maker, who defeated Funny Cide by a half-length in the Wood.
"He was really impressive in the Preakness and it doesn’t look like the mile and a half (of the Belmont) is going to hurt him," Stevens said of Funny Cide. "Plus, he’s on his home turf (Funny Cide is unbeaten in three starts at Belmont Park, although all were against state-bred rivals). I was surprised at how easy he won the Preakness."
What did not surprise Stevens was Funny Cide’s defeat of Empire Maker in the Derby. The popular if mistaken perception was that Empire Maker’s narrow victory over Funny Cide in the Wood could have been greater, had jockey Jerry Bailey elected not to conserve Empire Maker for the Derby. Jose Santos, who rode Funny Cide, hit the gelding at least 10 times with his whip in the Wood in a bid to defeat Empire Maker.
Stevens’ reaction to that assumption? "Bull(bleep). I don’t think Empire Maker had that much left (in the Wood)," Stevens said. "He was all-out to win by a half-length. Funny Cide was a relatively lightly-raced horse and improving. He moved up off the Wood."
That he did. And if he wins the Belmont, it will move up racing, which needs all the help it can muster these days, what with scams in the Breeders’ Cup Pick Six and groundless allegations that Santos carried an illegal device when he piloted Funny Cide to victory in the Derby.
But with the hope that a local boy makes good on the sidewalks of New York, the Big Apple is agog. Toss in the public relations surge racing expects from the much-anticipated film "Seabiscuit" which will be released July 25, and it’s understandable why Stevens is encouraged.
"A lot of positive things are going on right now," said Stevens, who portrays George (The Iceman) Woolf in the movie, and who was named one of People Magazine’s 50 most beautiful people in its May issue. "I’m rooting for Funny Cide to win the Triple Crown, unless I’m riding in the Belmont, and if I’m the one who can beat him, I’d like to. But if I can’t, then I hope he wins."
THE HOMESTRETCH: Doug O’Neill is well on his way to his second Hollywood Park training title. The 35-year-old native of Dearborn, Michigan, is winning races in bunches, thanks to his owners. "They’re very good about letting us run where we need to run," said O’Neill, who won the 2002 autumn crown at Hollywood with 16 wins.
"I’m just lucky that the horses are coming up in good spots. Plus it makes a big difference because we train year-round at Hollywood. It helps having the horses run out of their own stalls. Even though the track surface has been a lot tighter this meet than in previous meets, I think we still have an edge because we train here. My horses are a lot more comfortable in the paddock, too."
Asked his thoughts on Funny Cide’s chances in the Belmont, O’Neill said: "I didn’t think he would win the Preakness, but the way he did, now I’m rooting for him to win the Triple Crown. It would be so good, a New York-bred winning it in New York, especially with all the crazy stuff that’s going on in this world. It would be a great boost for everybody."