Before the Kentucky Derby, Empire Maker was widely regarded as the best 3-year-old thoroughbred in America and a potential Triple Crown winner. But, a funny thing happened to Empire Maker in Louisville.
First, the New York-bred gelding Funny Cide reversed the result of the Wood Memorial with a gritty, 1 3/4 -length triumph in the Kentucky Derby while repelling Empire Maker's bid through the length of the Churchill Downs stretch.
Two weeks later, as Empire Maker was kept out of the Preakness, Funny Cide took another leap forward with a dominating, 9 3/4 -length victory in the Preakness.
So here we are five weeks down the road and it is Funny Cide, not Empire Maker, standing on the threshold of a Triple Crown sweep.
In my judgment, Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel overestimated Empire Maker's talent and under-trained him for the Derby, a tactic that backfired when Empire Maker missed a gallop and a jog during Derby week due to the colt's infamous bruised heel.
Yet even with those miscues behind him - even with four workouts at Belmont Park since the Derby - Empire Maker's trainer is taking another supremely confident gamble in the grueling, 1 1/2 -mile Belmont Stakes.
Only one Kentucky Derby starter in 134 years - Commendable in 2000 - has won the Belmont after skipping the Preakness or an alternate race in between. Of equal import, neither the 2000 Derby winner (Fusaichi Pegasus) nor the Preakness winner that year (Red Bullet) were in that Belmont field.
Can Empire Maker win the Belmont? Of course. He is a very good horse ready to run a better race than he did in the Derby. But the issue no longer is Empire Maker's to control.
We all saw the strong way Funny Cide won at Churchill Downs, extending his lead in the final yards, galloping out powerfully after the finish. We also saw him make four distinct moves of varying length and speed to take the heart out of the Frankel-trained Peace Rules while thoroughly exposing the rest of the overmatched Preakness field.
While Funny Cide's final workout for the Belmont on Tuesday - five furlongs in a very fast 57 4/5 seconds - raises doubts about his capacity to hold his speed together for the full 1 1/2 miles, this fast final workout was quite similar to the 58 2/5 workout Funny Cide had four days prior to the 1 1/4 -mile Kentucky Derby. It tells us that Funny Cide is still there, ready to fire another top effort.
On pure talent and suitability for the long Belmont distance, No. 4 Funny Cide and No. 1 Empire Maker are so close together that the first dead heat in Triple Crown history is more than a remote possibility. But I do give Funny Cide the slightest advantage based on a few hair-splitting facts:
Funny Cide is more battle tested than any of the other five horses in the Belmont and has shown a gritty determination to reach out for more effort when challenged.
He has the tactical speed to control the pace from a stalking position right behind No. 3 Scrimshaw, or from in front of the pack.
While Funny Cide is not in the same league as the last three Triple Crown champions - Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) - he is much better than most of the eight good horses who subsequently failed to complete the rare Triple Crown sweep.
True, Funny Cide faces a formidable opponent in Empire Maker, plus at least two other legitimate stretch threats. But isn't this as it should be for any horse seeking to become the 12th Triple Crown winner?
Look for the gritty No. 4 Funny Cide to win the Belmont, No. 1 Empire Maker to finish second, No. 6 Ten Most Wanted third and No. 5 Dynever or No. 3 Scrimshaw fourth.
The $100 mythical bankroll will be played as follows:
$10 trifecta ticket A: 4; with 1; with 6, 5, 3. ($30)
$5 trifecta ticket B: 4; with 1, 6, 5, 3; with 1, 6, 5, 3. ($60).
$2 trifecta ticket C: 4, with 1, 6, 5, 3, with 2. ($8).
Plus, a $2 souvenir win bet on No. 4.
Steve Davidowitz is the author of Betting Thoroughbreds and Editor of The American Racing Manual for the Daily Racing Form.