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THE EMPIRE Strikes Back
Tim Layden
June 16, 2003
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
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June 16, 2003

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

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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�-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� 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.")

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