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No Showdown at Saratoga

Funny Cide and Empire Maker, both of whom won Triple Crown races, are scratched from the Travers.

August 23, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

The potato chip was introduced in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., 150 years ago, beating the opening of the town's racetrack by 11 years. Saratoga, the oldest track in the U.S., will give away 40,000 bags of chips on Sunday, but any symbolism would have made for a better fit today. The field for the 134th running of the Travers Stakes was as delicate as the most flimsy samples of the snack.

Trainers Barclay Tagg and Bobby Frankel -- crunch, crunch -- played a long-running, madcap game of I'm-out-I'm-in-I'm-out with their respective 3-year-olds, Funny Cide and Empire Maker, and by Friday, both horses had been declared out of today's Travers. The resumption of the Triple Crown rivalry between Funny Cide, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, and Empire Maker, the Belmont winner, will wait for another day, with no guarantee that it will even come in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

"If he doesn't run again this year, I don't care," Tagg said Friday after scratching Funny Cide from the $1-million Travers, which, after the Triple Crown races, is the most prestigious race in the country for 3-year-olds. Funny Cide, whose problems began when his temperature soared to 102 degrees the day after he finished third in the Haskell at Monmouth Park on Aug. 3, was breathing irregularly after a 1 1/2-mile gallop Friday. After an endoscopic examination showed that his airways were clogged with mucous, Tagg withdrew the New York-bred gelding from the race.

Empire Maker, whose Belmont win deprived Funny Cide of a Triple Crown sweep, coughed for several days, lost his appetite and missed three days of training.

"I'm erring on the side of caution," Frankel said. "I've always said, 'When in doubt, take them out,' and that's what I'm doing. If I ran him, I might win the battle and lose the war."

Frankel said that Empire Maker is likely to face older horses for the first time in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park on Sept. 27. That would serve as Empire Maker's prep for the $4-million Breeders' Cup Classic.

The dual defections from this Travers underscore the difficulty tracks have in promoting races. The Breeders' Cup, which starts with deep fields of as many as 14 horses, is buffeted by volume; the Classic even survived 1997, when the 1-2 choices, Gentlemen and Formal Gold, were injured and unable to run at Hollywood Park. A.P. Indy, the future horse of the year, was scratched the morning of the 1992 Kentucky Derby, but the Derby is the Holy Grail of American racing and insulated against absentee horses.

However, other races on the landscape need supernovas to stir the public. In 1990, Arlington Park put together a $1-million race that was to feature Sunday Silence, Easy Goer and Criminal Type, but one by one they dropped out. Sunday Silence, the 1989 Derby winner, was the last to go, two days before the race. By post time, the purse had shrunk to $250,000, the field was a bunch of third-raters and national television passed on coverage.

The Travers, first run in 1864, may transcend the loss of Funny Cide and Empire Maker -- one Saratoga official still thinks the Travers attendance record of 60,486 could be broken -- but the next time these two horses are advertised, the public might wait a little longer to buy tickets and make hotel reservations. The track, whose management, the New York Racing Assn., is already under fire from federal and New York state officials for a laundry list of alleged transgressions, would have been more hard-pressed had Tagg, as he had indicated, waited until this afternoon before he decided about running.

"I was thrilled that Tagg declared Funny Cide [Friday morning]," said Bill Nader, NYRA's senior vice president. "It gave us the opportunity to be honest with the public, which was the fair thing to do given the popularity of the horse in the Saratoga market."

When Funny Cide took sick early this month, that was the cue for the marketing department to back off on the track's "Showdown at Saratoga" theme.

"Otherwise," Nader said, "we would have pushed that to the absolute limit. But Empire Maker was a different story. That development sneaked up on us, and caught us by surprise, but that's horse racing. We made the creative decision to sell the Travers and not the rivalry because of the uncertainty surrounding Funny Cide. So [on Friday], with both horses out, we delivered the message that, just like Christmas, you can't keep the Travers from coming. The door is now open for one of these other horses to step up and join the platform alongside Funny Cide and Empire Maker."

In Peace Rules, Frankel will still saddle the morning-line Travers favorite. Peace Rules is 2-1, followed by Sky Mesa at 5-2 and Ten Most Wanted at 7-2. Others in the field are Strong Hope, Congrats and Wild And Wicked. Shug McGaughey, who trains Congrats, entered his colt only on the chance that something would go awry with Funny Cide or Empire Maker.

"If we didn't run in the Travers," McGaughey said, "we would have run in some allowance race next week."

*

Passing Shot, at 11-1, nosed out Wild Spirit in the $400,000 Personal Ensign Handicap at Saratoga on Friday, preventing Bobby Frankel from registering his 19th Grade I of the year. The record of 22 was set by Wayne Lukas in 1987.

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