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BELMONT OPINIONS ABOUND.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI Horse Racing

INGLEWOOD - At Hollywood Park this week, everybody's talking about the big race Saturday.

``Star Vega, Gotdream Work for Honeymoon; Field of Ten Likely,'' read the headline Wednesday in the stable notes put out by the Hollywood Park publicity staff.

OK, some people are hung up on local races like the Honeymoon Handicap.

So let's say almost everybody's talking about the Belmont Stakes and Funny Cide's chances of completing the first Triple Crown sweep in a quarter-century.

In Hollywood Park's backstretch offices Thursday morning, racing secretary Martin Panza was idly analyzing the race that will be the world's focus for 2 1/2 minutes Saturday evening.

``My heart's with Funny Cide,'' Panza was saying. ``But my head tells me Empire Maker (will win).''

Walking on the dirt road outside Panza's office, jockey Pat Valenzuela was talking about the Belmont, informed by the experience of riding Sunday Silence when that colt lost his 1989 Triple Crown attempt in the Belmont won by Easy Goer.

``The horse (Funny Cide) has gone through a lot of criticism and so has the jockey (Jose Santos). It's looking like a Cinderella story,'' Valenzuela said. ``It looks like Empire Maker is the only horse that has a chance to beat him.''

Sitting on a planter ledge nearby, jockey Mike Smith offered encouragement for Funny Cide fans.

``I think he'll win it,'' Smith said. ``There's not a lot of horses in there to put (early) pressure on him. He's got one horse on the inside (Scrimshaw) with speed, and he can just lope along with him. Then it's just a question of holding 'em off. Heck, he might open up.

``To me, he just seems to be getting better at the right time,'' Smith said. ``He jumped forward to win the Derby, then he jumped forward again to win the Preakness.''

Smith is the regular rider of Azeri, who is seeking her second consecutive Horse of the Year title. A Triple Crown sweep could clinch the championship for Funny Cide.

``I'm not going to root against him,'' Smith said. ``She (Azeri) has got nothing to prove.''

Watching Thursday-morning workouts from the patio behind the track cafeteria, trainer Gary Mandella forecast a close race between Funny Cide and Empire Maker, respectively the even-money favorite and the 6-5 second choice in a field that includes 5-1 Dynever, 10-1 Ten Most Wanted, 20-1 Scrimshaw and 50-1 Supervisor.

``I'm hoping Funny Cide gets it done,'' Mandella said. ``If you could have a Triple Crown winner, and then six weeks later come out with the biggest movie (`Seabiscuit') made about horse racing in 25 years, that would be great for the sport.

``But I think you have to look at the fact the horses have each won once against the other and they've been within a length or two of each other. That tells me it's not going to be easy.''

Tony Matos, agent for jockeys Victor Espinoza and Jose Valdivia Jr., knows what it's like to go for the Triple Crown, having worked for Kent Desormeaux when Real Quiet lost the 1998 Belmont by a nose and for Espinoza when War Emblem lost the 2002 Belmont at the starting gate. When Matos worked for Angel Cordero, he chose Darby Creek Road over Affirmed in the winter of 1978, only to watch Affirmed perform the triple under Steve Cauthen.

``Quite naturally, you've got to root for somebody to win the Triple Crown,'' Matos said between phone conversations with trainers. ``I know what a heartbreaker it is to get beat. Anybody who says they don't like Funny Cide, there's got to be something wrong with them, because all he does is win.''

In the press box, Hollywood Park and ESPN television commentator Kurt Hoover picked Funny Cide emphatically.

``I think Empire Maker's got to improve to beat him, and Funny Cide's got to regress, and I don't see any reason that's going to happen,'' Hoover said.

Hollywood Park trainers speculated Funny Cide's last workout - five furlongs in 57 4/5 seconds Tuesday morning at Belmont Park - was too fast too close to the race.

``I think Frankel's horse (Empire Maker) looks pretty dangerous because he's fresh and strong, and I'm a little concerned about that fast work,'' said David Hofmans, who trained Touch Gold to win the 1997 Belmont and deny Silver Charm the Triple Crown.

``You don't want to see them going that fast four days before a mile-and- a-half race,'' Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally said at his barn. ``Even if it doesn't knock him out, it puts speed into him, and you don't want that (in a long race).''

``But,'' said trainer Jenine Sahadi, referring to Funny Cide trainer Barclay Tagg and assistant trainer and exercise rider Robin Smullen, ``it's hard to criticize anything they've done so far.''

Panza likes the fact Kentucky Derby runner-up Empire Maker skipped the Preakness and targeted the Belmont, a marathon for which he seems to have a better pedigree than Funny Cide.

``He (Empire Maker) hasn't run in five weeks and he wants to go a mile and a half. Funny Cide will be running for the fourth time in eight weeks, and that stuff catches up,'' Panza said. ``Plus, is he really bred to go a mile and a half?''

It'll all be resolved Saturday at Belmont Park.

Twenty-eight-hundred miles away, Hollywood Park will be watching.

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OUT OF THE GATE

- Kevin Modesti
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jun 6, 2003
Words:908
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