SOMETHING FUNNY IN THE AIR Funny Cide will win the Belmont Stakes this Saturday. Go ahead and call your bookie. Having already taken the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, this majestic New York gelding -- can a gelding be majestic? -- will become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed a quarter century ago. How can I be so sure? Easy answer: we’re overdue for something breathtaking in the world of sports. For three weekends each year -- and for a total of less than seven minutes -- the Sport of Kings gives us all a chance to cheer for something extraordinary. Over the course of a tightly packaged seven-week stretch of spring, we’re able to cross our fingers as the most beautiful athletes in the world show us humans that a desire to win, to be crowned champion, to bask in glory is not solely the instinct of two-legged millionaires. Only 11 horses have captured the Triple Crown (not one of them a gelding, by the way). Funny Cide is the fifth horse in the last seven years to win the first two legs, but this Saturday in New York will be the first since 1978 to complete the Crown. Racing a lung-busting mile-and-a-half on his home course, Funny Cide will win because we cheering fools need something to take our breath away. It’s been five years since Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa assaulted Roger Maris’ 37-year-old home run record. That summer of ‘98 certainly passed the breathtaking test. A year later, cancer survivor Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France . . . breathtaking and then some. But since? Barry Bonds’ 73 home runs of 2001 felt like an anticlimactic affirmation of a surly modern ballplayer’s surpassing greatness. Armstrong’s three ensuing victories in France have -- remarkably -- taken on a ho-hum quality. The only breath being taken, it seems, is through our collective yawns. When Tiger Woods blew away the Masters field for his first major in 1997, you’re darn right it took my breath away. But since that remarkable weekend, the only thing to astonish on the PGA Tour is when the guy loses. In the world of tennis, Serena Williams has become as automatic as Woods. She just bludgeons the rest of the field, one tournament after another. Dominant? Yes . . . and somewhat boring. What about team achievements? The mighty Yankees have graciously allowed their run of championships to be interrupted by the Diamondbacks and Angels. I just can’t, however, find the requisite magic in a team named after a serpent or one that plays on the fringe of Los Angeles. Pro football has become so over-hyped that when a Super Bowl champ is finally crowned, the feeling is akin to a blockbuster reality-TV series FINALLY reaching its climax. The New England Patriots’ unlikely championship after the 2001 season just might have achieved breathtaking status, but for the fact the Pats wouldn’t have even reached the Big Game were it not for the biggest football fluke since the Immaculate Reception. How about the latest Laker dynasty, you ask? Even if you ignore my L.A. barrier for breathlessness, Shaq and Kobe’s three-year party at the expense of undermanned Eastern Conference pretenders just doesn’t fit the bill. Hockey? Come on. New Jersey, Detroit, and Colorado have traded the Stanley Cup like some kind of secret-society showpiece for the better part of a decade. Which brings us back to Funny Cide. Not quite the awe-inspiring name of such Triple Crown winners as Gallant Fox (1930), War Admiral (1937), Citation (1948), or Secretariat (1973). But the kind of name we just might need to embrace during these troubled times. (Don’t you find some irony -- at the very least, metaphor -- in Funny Cide’s closest competition at the Derby? Empire Maker and Peace Rules.) In a world that has grown far too macho, how wonderful would it be for a gelding to seize the front page, bold type? Thanks to an irreversible decision by his, um, handlers, there will be no breeding stable for this champion once his racing days are done . . . only the tastiest oats and apples, the softest saddles, and regular sponge baths. Bought by a group of six New York race fans a year ago -- for a paltry $75,000 -- Funny Cide has managed to achieve a status rarely seen in the pampered, privileged world of thoroughbred racing. He’s the people’s champion. Just enough to take our breath away.


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