The Empire Strikes Back Racing was denied the Triple Crown it so desperately needed when Funny Cide, the people's horse, lost to Empire Maker, the rich man's horse, in the Belmont

June 15, 2003

Darkness approached, and a cool, steady rain fell on the gelding's
broad back, mixing with water from a groom's hose and puddling on
the small, gray stones at his feet. In little more than a month,
Funny Cide had become that rare racehorse whose name reached the
mainstream. He took a racing family along for the ride: his
fraternity of novice owners; his cantankerous, throwback trainer;
and his reborn jockey. You could read about it all on his
website. Now, less than an hour after he had been beaten in the
Belmont Stakes, ending another Triple Crown bid at its final
stop, assistant trainer Robin Smullen whisked Funny Cide's coat
and patted his neck. "All right, boy," she said lovingly last
Saturday evening. "All right."

Racing can be a cruel game, often granting a happy ending not to
the little man but to the giant. In the first week of May, Funny
Cide slipped into Louisville beneath the racing radar. He was New
York-bred, a gelding, and he hadn't trained at Churchill
Downs--three reasons why he could not be expected to win the
Kentucky Derby. Trainer Bobby Frankel was destined to win the Run
for the Roses with Florida Derby and Wood Memorial winner Empire
Maker, who many predicted could become the 12th Triple Crown
winner and the first in 25 years. Even when a bruised right front
foot interrupted Empire Maker's training during Derby week,
Frankel stood outside his barn and said, "Bet against him at your
own risk."

Funny Cide, of course, won the Derby decisively and two weeks
later romped to victory in the Preakness. He came home to Barn 6
on the Belmont backside with a chance not only to make history
but also to win a $5 million bonus and prolong a feel-good story
for a sport in need. His 10 Sackatoga Stable owners, including
six former high school buddies from tiny Sackets Harbor, N.Y.,
were on TV more often than Seinfeld reruns. "When I was talking
to Tom Brokaw this morning...," J.P. Constance, one of the six,
said on the eve of the Belmont. Then he stopped, wide-eyed, and
added, "Can you believe I just said that?"

Funny Cide's trainer, Barclay Tagg, was obliged to meet with a
small media army each day during Belmont week, a chore he endured
rather than embraced. A Penn State graduate, Tagg perked up when
he got a letter from Nittany Lions football coach Joe Paterno
telling him that it was nice to see one Penn State coach winning
some games. Said Tagg, "I thought that was very nice of him."

Frankel, who had held Empire Maker out of the Preakness, stood
off to the side, poking at the story line with a sharp stick. "I
still think, in the long run, my horse is going to be the best
one in this bunch," he said five days before the Belmont. Frankel
had trained Empire Maker lightly before the Derby in hopes of
keeping him fresh for a run at the Triple Crown, but he pushed
the colt hard leading to the grueling 1 1/2-mile Belmont, leaving
nothing to chance.

Daylong rains turned the track surface from soft loam to slop
long before post time. A thunderous roar greeted Funny Cide as he
reached the track, and the crowd of 101,864 let out another, more
intensified cry when he took the lead from Scrimshaw in the first
turn. Funny Cide covered the first half mile in 48.70 seconds and
six furlongs in 1:13.51, slow fractions that should have left him
with ample reserve to hold off challengers. "When I saw
forty-eight and one-thirteen, I thought we were home free," Tagg
said. But Funny Cide was fighting jockey Jose Santos, expending
energy in a costly battle of man versus horse. With a half mile
to run, Empire Maker cruised to Funny Cide's withers and drew
little response. In the stretch it was Ten Most Wanted, a
disappointing ninth-place finisher in the Derby, who nearly
caught Empire Maker. Funny Cide was third, beaten soundly by
5 1/4 lengths. The victory was Frankel's first in 12 Triple
Crown starts; the loss ended the first center-stage run of Tagg's
32-year training career. "I've had bigger disappointments in
racing," said Tagg, "but this was $5 million of disappointment."

They are horses from different ends of the racing culture. Funny
Cide is Coors, Empire Maker is cabernet. Funny Cide's sire was
the promising but unproven Distorted Humor, who won eight career
races, none longer than a mile. His dam, Belle's Good Cide, won
just two of 26 starts. After being deemed nearly too homely to
sell, Funny Cide was bought for $22,000 as a yearling. "Backward
is the word I would have used to describe him," says Dale Benson,
yearling manager at WinStar Farm in Versailles, Ky., where Funny
Cide was prepped for sale in the spring of 2001, after being
foaled in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on April 20, 2000. "He was
mentally sharp, but he was fleshy and he didn't have much muscle
on him."

Empire Maker was born a week after Funny Cide, at Juddmonte
Farms, the 2,500-acre centerpiece of Saudi prince Khalid
Abdullah's U.S. operation, in Lexington, Ky. His sire is 1990
Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Unbridled, and his dam is
Toussaud, Juddmonte's prize 14-year-old broodmare. Had Empire
Maker been sold as a yearling, he would have fetched a price well
into seven figures. Toussaud's home is an oversized stall in a
green barn with garage doors that can be closed to allow heat or
air-conditioning in her section. She has a custom paddock with a
soft, wood-chip surface to dull the pain of laminitis
(inflammation of the foot) and prolong her breeding career. "She
is a valuable mare, indeed," says Juddmonte manager Garrett
O'Rourke, "and we treat her accordingly." There are countless
humans who do not live as well.

Frankel, who trains Juddmonte's U.S. stable, didn't see Empire
Maker until he was delivered to his Belmont Park barn on June 15,
2002, an unraced 2-year-old. Several weeks later Frankel asked
Jerry Bailey, the No. 1 jockey in the country, to work a horse
for him in the morning at Saratoga Springs. When Bailey arrived
at the track, he saw Frankel preparing Medaglia d'Oro (last
year's Belmont runner-up) and another horse being saddled for
training. "I assumed I was working Medaglia," says Bailey. "Then
Bobby asked me to get on this 2-year-old to go six furlongs,
which was a long way for a late foal. But he was smooth, and he
went right with Medaglia. That 2-year-old turned out to be Empire
Maker. I was excited. As a jockey, one of the things that's
always on your mind is finding a Derby horse for the next year."
(Notably, it was during a workout at that same Saratoga meeting
that Santos first climbed on Funny Cide and found his Derby
horse.)

Empire Maker raced twice as a 2-year-old, earning a first and a
third while displaying notable discipline problems in the
paddock. In his second race this year, he crushed a good field in
the Florida Derby and then beat Funny Cide by a half length in
the Wood. That race proved critical to deciphering the Belmont.
Bailey insisted he had not pushed Empire Maker in that win;
Santos said Empire Maker went all out. (Others agreed; an
assistant to trainer D. Wayne Lukas told Smullen on the day after
the Wood, "Wayne says you've got a great shot in the Derby; that
other horse is worn out.")

Last Saturday, Empire Maker was a model of decorum. In a rainy,
chaotic prerace paddock, he walked tight ovals, pausing
periodically to eyeball spectators with an almost regal
arrogance. In the race he handled Funny Cide and Ten Most Wanted
as needed. Funny Cide's performance left many questions: Did he
dislike the sloppy surface? (Santos said he hated it.) Was his
blistering Tuesday workout--57.80 for five furlongs--too fast?
(Tagg insists it was not, and Lukas, Scrimshaw's trainer, said
before the race, "That work is bad news for the rest of us.") Was
he worn down by the rigors of the Triple Crown? (There's a reason
it has been achieved only three times in 55 years.)

The two horses will meet again, probably in the Travers at
Saratoga on Aug. 23 and potentially in the Breeders' Cup Classic
at Santa Anita on Oct. 25. Racing fans will know for certain
which is the better horse by autumn.

Sackatoga Stable leaves deep footprints. On Saturday, as it had
for the first two Triple Crown races, the entourage arrived at
the track in yellow school buses, this time to a hail of camera
flashes. When the race was done--and lost--the owners returned to
their hotel and partied just as they would have in victory, while
Blue Hand Luke, a Saratoga area band, played into the night.

While Prince Khalid was an ocean away in London, Juddmonte's
connections at Belmont expressed little regard for beaten
opponents and openly discussed future megabucks breeding plans.
When he reached the winner's circle, Empire Maker had been booed
for upsetting Funny Cide. Precious few owners win big races. Far
fewer make people care.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES HOME RUN Bailey (pink cap) drove Empire Maker through the middle, holding off Ten Most Wanted as Funny Cide slogged along the rail. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES THE PARTY'S OVER After the race, a disconsolate Tagg (left) and Santos were left to ponder the one that got away.

For more from Tim Layden, check out his Viewpoint column every
Friday at si.com.

"When I saw forty-eight and one-thirteen," Tagg said, "I THOUGHT
WE WERE HOME FREE." But Funny Cide was fighting Santos.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)