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Horse racing

Empire strikes back at Belmont

Bobby Frankel's colt thwarts Funny Cide's bid for first Triple Crown since 1978.

By BRANT JAMES
Published June 8, 2003

[AP photo]
Empire Maker, foreground, crosses the Belmont finish line ahead of Ten Most Wanted and fading rival Funny Cide, who was third.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The fairy tale of New York was ruined by one of its own.

Funny Cide's bid to become the 12th winner of the Triple Crown got mired in the mud of a sloppy track and withered in the final steps to history Saturday, as Empire Maker took charge in the final quarter-mile and held off Ten Most Wanted to win the 135th Belmont Stakes.

In relegating Funny Cide to third, Empire Maker avenged his loss in the Kentucky Derby and vindicated trainer Bobby Frankel's decision to skip the Preakness and prepare for the third leg of the Triple Crown at his home track. It was the 10th time a beaten Derby favorite won the Belmont.

Frankel, a native New Yorker, steadfastly had proclaimed his colt's superiority since the Derby loss, blaming lost training time because of a bruised foot. He was proved right, but few of the rain-soaked 101,864 in attendance seemed to care. Or that he was one of them. Or that he won for the first time in 11 classics starts.

The throng chanted Funny Cide's name as he slogged onto the track for the post parade and booed Empire Maker and jockey Jerry Bailey as they entered the winner's circle.

"I think they were booing the mayor," Frankel quipped. "No, I'm not guilty at all. I feel good about it, but I haven't walked in the streets yet to see what happens."

"I think the 101,000 were rooting for Funny Cide and the other 864 for the other guys," Funny Cide jockey Jose Santos said.

Funny Cide trainer Barclay Tagg was crestfallen after the loss, saying he felt "bad for all the people that came out" as he hustled to Barn 6.

"He worked so hard for this," Santos said, "and to have it not come true is hard. He is taking it a lot harder than me."

Jack Knowlton, managing partner of Sackatoga Stable, said he and his friends appreciated their "10 minutes of fame."

Nineteen horses - five in the past seven years - have had a chance to join the pantheon of horse racing by winning the Belmont, but some minor misfortune befell them all. War Emblem bobbled at the start. Charismatic broke down. Real Quiet and Silver Charm had bad racing luck, finishing second.

"Unless you're Secretariat or something, things have to go smoothly for you," Frankel said. "Even Secretariat got beat. We all got beat."

Santos could feel the race slipping through his rain-slicked hands as he struggled to restrain the front-running Funny Cide around the first turn. Funny Cide stalked off the pace in winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but set fractions of 23.85 and 48.70 to start the Belmont. Bailey, lurking in second, could see how it would unfold. Or in Funny Cide's case, unravel.

"When I turned up the backside I knew I had Funny Cide," he said. "He was pulling on Jose and that's key in the Belmont. If they pull on you, they have nothing left for the far turn. Halfway through the race we were upside Funny Cide and we were going very easily. I knew I could handle Funny Cide on even terms."

Funny Cide's 1-length lead dwindled to a head at the 1-mile mark, and Bailey drew about even as they approached the top of the stretch. The match-race finish that would have punctuated Funny Cide's storybook season vaporized. Funny Cide fizzled under left- and right-handed urging, and Empire Maker took a 1-length lead with a quarter-mile left.

"He just didn't have the same pace," Santos said.

Ten Most Wanted, rallying from fifth, blasted by Funny Cide at the top of the stretch and was making a move for the lead with 100 yards left as Empire Maker relaxed. But seeing the challenge, Empire Maker accelerated again to win by three-quarter length. Funny Cide was 5 lengths back, followed by Dynever, Supervisor and Scrimshaw. "(Ten Most Wanted) made a big surge to get up to his throat latch," jockey Pat Day said of his mount. "I didn't think at that point we'd be able to catch him."

Empire Maker covered the 11/2 miles in 2:28.26 and paid $6, $3.70 and $2.80.

Frankel, a Hall of Fame trainer, but a handicapper since his teens, said sentimentality made Funny Cide the 1-2 favorite. Still, some worry crept in.

"Thirty years (since Secretariat) and 25 (since Affirmed won the Triple Crown)," Frankel said. "Sometimes you think these things are destiny, and you don't want to have destiny against you."

Destiny was at best ambivalent Saturday. Perhaps even mean. New York had been captivated for three weeks by the thought of a $75,000 purchase becoming the first New York-bred and gelding to win the Triple Crown, turning the curmudgeonly Tagg into a reluctant celebrity and raising middle-class Sackatoga Stable as the proof dreams come true.

What it got was a day of miserable rain and a Belmont Stakes won by Saudi Prince Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms. Khalid watched the race on the TV network he owns.

Fair depends on the perspective, but Santos said: "I can't be disappointed about this. A Triple Crown is a very hard thing to win. Maybe it's so hard we're going to have to wait another 25 years."

[Last modified June 8, 2003, 01:33:29]

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