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Crown Hits a Slop Sign

Frankel's Empire Maker wins muddy Belmont, as Funny Cide finishes third in Triple Crown bid.

June 08, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y. — Kindly Sackets Harbor, that little New York village near the Canadian border, deserved better, but there was no dancing in the street in Sackets Harbor on Saturday night.

All of racing, not only the six former Sackets Harbor school chums who owned a piece of Funny Cide, was prime for a celebration, but the Triple Crown has gone begging once more. Empire Maker won the 135th Belmont Stakes, and Funny Cide didn't, and that still leaves Affirmed, in 1978, as the 11th and last horse to sweep the series.

To find out what it sounds like to hear tens of thousands people groan in unison, you had to be at rain-soaked Belmont Park, where minutes later they booed the return of Empire Maker and jockey Jerry Bailey to the winner's circle. The near-misses have been too frequent, the Triple Crown drought too lengthy, for them to react any other way, and Funny Cide, a confirmed off-track performer, seemed to have everything his way Saturday. But by the end of the 1 1/2-mile Belmont endurance test, it was Empire Maker fighting off Ten Most Wanted at the wire, and all Funny Cide could do was save third, unable to add this one to his Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins.

Empire Maker, giving trainer Bobby Frankel his first Triple Crown win, had beaten Funny Cide before, in the Wood Memorial, but in the race that really counted, five weeks ago at Churchill Downs, Empire Maker was second, almost two lengths back. Before a crowd of 101,864, Empire Maker won by three-quarters of a length. Ten Most Wanted, who ran ninth while injuring his back in the Derby, finished 4 1/4 lengths ahead of Funny Cide and Jose Santos. Dynever, Supervisor and Scrimshaw completed the order of finish over a sloppy track that had been doused with a steady rain for nine hours before the race.

The second choice behind the even-money Funny Cide, Empire Maker paid $6 for $2, coming home in 2:28 1/5.

Funny Cide is the 17th Derby-Preakness winner to fail in the Belmont, the ninth since Affirmed and the fifth in the last seven years. Funny Cide's 10 owners could have collected a $5-million Triple Crown bonus with a Belmont win.

"I've had bigger disappointments," said a flustered Barclay Tagg, Funny Cide's trainer, as he hot-footed it from a brief post-race TV interview back to the barns. "But losing $5 million is disappointing. [Almost] $6 million."

First place in the Belmont, worth $600,000, went to Khalid Abdullah, the Saudi Arabian prince who watched on television from England. Instead of $5.6 million, Funny Cide earned $110,000 for third place.

"To win the Triple Crown, you've got to win three major races in five weeks," said John Chandler, who manages the prince's racing and breeding operations. "That's what makes it so difficult."

Bailey, who went into this Belmont with one win (Hansel, 1991) in 17 mounts in the race, has seldom ridden a cannier race. Stuck with the inside post, with the slowest part of the track in front of him, Bailey allowed Funny Cide and Scrimshaw to out-break him, but going into the first turn he cleverly moved Empire Maker off the fence, clearing Dynever and positioning his colt outside of the two leaders.

"When we turned into the backside," Bailey said, "Funny Cide was pulling on Jose, while my horse was relaxing. That's the whole key to winning a mile-and-a-half race. You've got to have something left when you turn for home."

Scrimshaw didn't want to run much farther than six furlongs, and as he dropped out of contention, the 1-2 finishers from the Derby hooked up. Bailey waited to pounce with Empire Maker. They cruised past Funny Cide approaching the quarter pole. Santos needed to get his whip out then, while Bailey continued to hand-ride his horse.

"My horse was not handling the track," Santos said of Funny Cide. "I'm still very proud of him, and he will be back. I want to see what he can do over a good track. Empire Maker was the best today, but my horse was best in the most important race in the world."

Santos said that he hit Funny Cide for the first time at the five-sixteenths pole. The New York-bred gelding responded for about a sixteenth of a mile, but then he flattened out.

"I thought he would handle the slop better than he did," Santos said.

Pat Day and Ten Most Wanted zeroed in on Empire Maker's right flank through the stretch.

"My horse ran an awesome race," Day said. "We just came up a little bit short and got outrun. When we couldn't go by [Empire Maker] in the stretch, I knew we were going to run out of time. At the sixteenth pole, we were just holding our ground."

A bruised foot at Churchill Downs compromised Empire Maker's training going into the Derby. Frankel said last week that if it hadn't been the Derby, he probably wouldn't have run the horse. Other than Commendable, who won here in 2000, Empire Maker is believed to be the only other Belmont winner who didn't have a race after the Derby.

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