Is Empire Maker the better horse?
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
Forget about trips, who's fresh, who's not, workout times, track conditions and whatever other handicapping debates may arise over the next several days. The only question that will really matter Belmont Stakes day is this: Is Funny Cide a better horse than Empire Maker? I'm not sure that he is.
Funny Cide is an easy horse to root for and nothing would be better for this sport than to have a popular Triple Crown winning gelding from New York who may still be around when he's 7 or 8 years-old. We all know that. But the final leg of the Triple Crown still must be handicapped with the head and not the heart. And anyone wanting to take an objective look at this race must admit that--and I feel like Scrooge writing this--Funny Cide could be simply be beaten by a better horse.
Empire Maker's supporters, of which there are many, need only point to the April 12 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct to justify their argument. What happened that day was no mirage or meaningless aberration. Empire Maker crushed Funny Cide like a grape. It such a one-side victory that hardly anyone noticed that Funny Cide had run second. That's how much everyone got caught up in Empire Maker's supposed invincibility.
The Kentucky Derby changed everything. At 12-1, Funny Cide had no problem turning the tables on Empire Maker, winning by 1 3/4 lengths over the Derby favorite. Empire Maker had proved to be vulnerable after all and Funny Cide showed everyone he was a lot better than people thought. Funny Cide delivered his best, but did Empire Maker?
It's hard to believe that he did. Though Bobby Frankel refused to use the bruised foot as an excuse (he couldn't after insisting all week that everything was fine), the horse did miss a day of training and clearly wasn't as sharp in the Derby as he was in the Wood Memorial or Florida Derby.
"I'm frustrated in the sense that I think had Empire Maker been on his game it could've been a different story and probably would've been a different story at Churchill," jockey Jerry Bailey said.
Then again, just how much better was Funny Cide that day? You cannot dismiss the trips the two horses had. Funny Cide's was perfect. Empire Maker's was not. While Jose Santos rode his horse brilliantly and kept him close to the rail on both turns, Jerry Bailey, from the 12 post, was forced wide most of the way.
Empire Maker was four wide on the first turn and three wide on the second. That matters. Based on the Thoro-Graph speed figures, which take ground loss on the turns into account when making the numbers, Empire Maker actually ran the better race of the two because he had to cover more ground. Under the Thoro-Graph formula, Funny Cide gained what amounted to a 3 1/2-length advantage over Funny Cide because of the paths each covered on the turns.
"He got beat a length and three-quarters and I probably lost more lengths than that on both turns," Bailey said. "So it's just my opinion, but I still think Empire Maker's the best horse. But this is racing and you've got to go out there and prove it."
At the very least, the two horses are 1-for-1 against each other, with each one scoring a decisive victory. That's makes them even and raises the question, Who's turn is it this time? Here again, the signs point to Empire Maker.
He will have had five weeks off going into Belmont, a huge advantage over a horse that will have had three weeks off and will be making his third start in just five weeks. Funny Cide seems to be a durable sort, but has had to endure a certain amount of stress than cannot possibly work in his favor. It's a question Barclay Tagg knows he must consider.
"He's a nice, fit, sound horse and he's a willing horse," Tagg said of Funny Cide. "So, I don't think (the Derby and Preakness) affected him in any way, but I've certainly had reservations about whether he would be able to go through the three of them. And maybe he wont' run any good with Belmont. I don't know. "
Meanwhile, the brilliant Bobby Frankel has been given five weeks to get his horse perfect for a major goal. He should have Empire Maker primed for his very best.
I'll give the edge to Funny Cide on tenacity and focus. This is a horse who understands the game and goes out and does his job. Empire Maker is a bit of a brat. He bears out, he acts up in the mornings and he was a serious underachiever before Frankel put blinkers on him. All that may mean the more naturally talented horse doesn't have to win.
And what about Dynever? He's the only other horse in the race who matters. But, on speed figures, he's a much slower horse than Funny Cide and Empire Maker and will still must prove he's their equal.
But those are minor concerns. This is a two-horse race, and it if comes down to 'May the best horse win," that may just mean that there will not be a Triple Crown winner in 2003.