Empire Maker trumps Triple Crown bid with convincing Belmont win

`Ten' finishes 2nd, `Cide' third

Victory salve for Frankel but heavy disappointment for `Funny's' followers

Belmont Stakes

June 08, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. - The Triple Crown bid of Funny Cide, a popular horse with a common-man appeal, ended yesterday on a rainy, gloomy day at Belmont Park.

The horse who had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness faltered in the Belmont, as 16 other Triple Crown hopefuls had done before him. Winning the Triple Crown - sweeping the three spring classics - has become one of sport's most elusive treasures.

Only 11 horses have done it. Hopes fell heavy on Funny Cide to be the 12th. A near-record crowd of 101,562 braved the miserable day and squeezed into Belmont Park, most hoping to see history made.

It was not to be. Empire Maker, who five weeks ago was the top Triple Crown prospect, avenged his defeat May 3 in the Kentucky Derby with a measured, three-quarter-length victory in the Belmont. Ten Most Wanted rallied for second, and Funny Cide, after leading into the far turn, faded to third, 4 1/4 lengths farther back.

Funny Cide became the ninth horse since Affirmed's Triple Crown in 1978 to win the first two jewels, but lose the third. Jose Santos, his jockey, attributed the loss to Belmont's sloppy surface.

"I don't think he was handling the track today," Santos said. "When he went into the first turn, he was going nowhere. I knew I was in big trouble."

Nevertheless, Funny Cide led the six-horse field into the turn. He didn't look as if he was laboring over the track. Instead, he looked as if he was making it difficult for Santos to control him.

Funny Cide broke running, and Jerry Bailey, riding Empire Maker, watched intently. Starting from the rail, Empire Maker broke fast enough to force Funny Cide to run hard to the first turn.

Then, Bailey swung Empire Maker to the outside, away from the soggy rail. Funny Cide led the speedy Scrimshaw around the bend. Empire Maker raced third, but then, entering the backstretch, quickly dispatched Scrimshaw and settled just to the outside of Funny Cide.

"When we turned up the backside, I knew we had Funny Cide," Bailey said. "He was pulling on Jose, and my horse was really relaxed. That's the key to a mile-and-a-half race. If a horse pulls on you the whole way, he'll have nothing left when he turns for home."

Funny Cide led down the backstretch into the far turn. By then, Empire Maker was gaining, and he took the lead midway around the turn.

At the head of the stretch, he led a weakening Funny Cide by a length. Midway down the stretch Ten Most Wanted under Pat Day surged up on the outside, and it appeared briefly he might overtake Empire Maker. But Empire Maker, who might have begun loafing on the lead, reasserted himself and held on for the narrow victory.

As the second choice at 2-1, Empire Maker paid $6 to win. He headed a $44 exacta with Ten Most Wanted, who was 9-1. With the even-money Funny Cide third, the trifecta returned $67.50.

Empire Maker completed the Belmont's 1 1/2 miles - known as the "Test of the Champion" - in 2 minutes, 28.26 seconds.

Barclay Tagg, the former Maryland trainer who conditions Funny Cide, had little to say after the race. Tagg labored in Maryland for three decades before moving his stable to New York for its bigger purses and greater opportunity.

"It's just disappointing," Tagg said. "I feel bad for all the people [who wanted Funny Cide to win].

"We were beaten by a good horse. I don't know what else to say. I'm being honest. That's horse racing."

Bobby Frankel, trainer of Empire Maker, savored the victory by the horse he thought was good enough to win the Triple Crown. The colt finished second to Funny Cide in the Kentucky Derby after coming into the race under-trained.

He missed training during Derby week after showing discomfort from a bruised foot. And Frankel, by his own admission, trained Empire Maker lightly for the Derby, trying to save something for the entire Triple Crown series.

"I blew it this year," Frankel said. "I played it real close, because I was looking ahead. I got a little overconfident. ... If I could do it over again, he'd have won the Derby."

Frankel said he felt vindicated after the Belmont for his unwavering confidence in Empire Maker.

"I really wanted to win it, more so for the horse," Frankel said. "I just wanted to prove he was the best horse. I was very, very confident all week. I didn't think I could get beat."

Bailey was also confident.

"I rode him like he was the best horse, because I thought he was the best horse," Bailey said. "He proved he was. He's the best 3-year-old I've ever been on. I think he'll prove as the year goes on that he's a great horse."

Funny Cide's unexpected success in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness proved enticing to sports fans and even many Americans who don't follow racing. All his connections - from jockey to owners - had appealing stories to tell, and an enamored media made sure the public heard them.

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