Empire Maker spoils Funny's Triple Crown run
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
ELMONT, NY -- Amid his confidence, expressed over and over again in the days and minutes leading up to the race, even Bobby Frankel had momentary visions that fate may conspire against him, that maybe the Belmont Stakes was not going to be about who was the fastest horse after all. He's a grizzled racetracker, hardly the type who believes in magic, but he sensed that maybe, just maybe, there was something almost mystical about Funny Cide. He was, of course, not alone.
He should have known better. Funny Cide may have been the good story, but Empire Maker was the better horse. At least he was on this day, the day when his once-glowing reputation was restored.
It hashappened again: in 2003, there will be no Triple Crown. Funny Cide tried his best over the sloppy track on a miserable, wet day at Belmont Park. But his best was not good enough. Clearly beaten once passed by Empire Maker about three furlongs from the finish, he checked in third as Empire Maker dug down in the stretch and to hold off Ten Most Wanted in a three-quarter length victory.
"I'm not disappointed by this horse," said Funny Cide's rider, Jose Santos. "He had a great run. We came here to the Belmont Stakes to try and win the Triple Crown. To win the Triple Crown is very difficult. It's been 25 years without someone winning."
The Triple Crown hex remains alive. There has not been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Since then, nine horses have come into the Belmont Stakes with a chance of sweeping the series and all nine have lost. Five potential Triple Crown winners have gone down in the last seven years alone, and Funny Cide's failure to win will now create the longest gap between Triple Crown winners in history--at least 26 years.
There was a time when all the talk was Empire Maker, when he was the one everyone expected to enter the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown bid on the line. His mission crashed and burned in the Kentucky Derby when he finished second behind a relative unknown named Funny Cide. Afterward, Frankel blamed himself, saying he babied the horse. That's how confident he was he would win the Kentucky Derby. He wanted to train his colt, who was hobbled by a bruised foot in the day's leading up to the race, in a manner that would leave him a fresh horse for the final two legs of the Triple Crown.
"What happened in the Kentucky Derby? I played it real close," he said. "I was thinking ahead. I didn't train him hard and then he missed some training time with the bruised foot. With the way he was trained for the race, I gave him too much to overcome. If I could do what they call a do-over and could do it all over again, he would have won the Kentucky Derby."
Frankel was intent on proving he, and so many others, were right about Empire Maker all along. He bore down on his horse in the five weeks he had off between the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont, fine-tuning him to where he was sure he would run his race. He believed that would be good enough.
"I was very, very confident in this horse," he said, ignoring his few doubts about the destiny factor. "There was no doubt in my mind that he would win."
Still, strategy would play a key. Funny Cide has more speed than Empire Maker does and he is a tenacious horse. Jerry Bailey, the rider of Empire Maker, knew he couldn't afford to let the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner get away from him.
He gunned him from the gate, took back for just a second, and then placed his mount just off Funny Cide's flank. He got an assist when Scrimshaw also joined the fray to put some pressure on Funny Cide. The pace was comfortable as Funny Cide completed a half-mile in :48.70, but Bailey already knew his rival was in trouble.
"As soon as I saw Funny Cide get a little rank and start pulling Jose, that is when I eased back and moved outside," he said. "When I turned up the backside, Funny Cide was really rank and my horse was relaxed. That's what you want going a mile and a half, a relaxed horse."
Funny Cide was all but done midway on the turn. Santos was already resorting to the whip on his mount and was getting no response. Meanwhile, Empire Maker was cruising and opened up by 1 ½ lengths.
And then came Ten Most Wanted, the horse who had been such a big disappointment in the Kentucky Derby. He was coming with menacing strides on the outside and appeared to have a chance. But, according to Bailey, Empire Maker was just loafing. Once the colt saw that there was a challenger on his outside, he dug down and gamely held on to win by three-quarters of a length. It was another 4 1/4 lengths back to Funny Cide in third. He was followed by Dynever, Supervisor and Scrimshaw.
"I really wanted to win it, but more so for the horse," Frankel said. "The press tends to get down on a horse like this and I wanted to get him back on top and have everybody raving aout him again."
Empire Maker paid $6.00 as the second choice among the crowd of 101,864, the second largest attendance in Belmont history. He completed the mile and a half in 2:28.62. It was Frankel's first win in a Triple Crown race, breaking an 0-for-11 run. Afterward, Funny Cide's trainer, Barclay Tagg, wasn't offering any excuses.
"I feel bad for all the people who came out," he said. "We had a good first quarter. The :48 and the 1:13 and change was a sensible pace. I don't know if it was the extra quarter-mile. We were beaten by a good horse. I don't know what else to say."
But Santos believed his horse didn't handle the sloppy track.
"That's not a cheap excuse," he said. "That's the honest truth."
With both Funny Cide and Empire Maker based in New York, the two will likely meet again, possibly in the Aug. 23 Travers at Saratoga. There might be a budding rivalry here, one that may entertain racing fans in the months ahead. They're two very good horses, but right now Empire Maker is on top.