- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

ELMONT, N.Y. — Thoroughbred racing immortality must wait for at least another year and another horse.

Empire Maker denied Funny Cide’s Triple Crown bid yesterday, taking the 135th Belmont Stakes over a sloppy track before 101,864 at Belmont Park. Empire Maker avenged his Kentucky Derby runner-up finish by putting away the Derby-Preakness Stakes champion entering the stretch and repelling Ten Most Wanted’s late charge.

“I knew I had [Funny Cide] on the backside,” Empire Maker jockey Jerry Bailey said. “Funny Cide was pulling on [jockey] Jose [Santos] and my horse was very relaxed, and that’s the key in a 1[-mile] race. If they pull on you all the way, they have nothing left when turning for home. I felt pretty confident from the sixteenth pole home.”

Empire Maker covered the distance in 2:28 1/5, paying $6 as the second choice. Ten Most Wanted was three-fourths of a length back for second with Funny Cide third.

Belmont’s atmosphere was electric before the race, with fans waiting nearly 10 hours in a steady, cold rain, unwilling to leave their reserved places along the rail near the finish line with the possibility of seeing the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Many wore Funny Cide shirts, buttons and even homemade crowns while holding signs of support.

The crowd roared when Funny Cide entered the paddock 20 minutes before the race. They cheered him throughout the post parade as the normally skittish chestnut seemingly relished his role as potentially the 12th Triple Crown winner.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Santos said. “We had 100,000 people screaming for Funny Cide.”

Screaming. Betting. Pleading. But racing will go at least 26 years between Triple Crown champions, the longest drought since Sir Barton’s inaugural sweep in 1919. Even Empire Maker trainer Bobby Frankel was aware of the 25-year absence that seemed eerily like 1973, when Secretariat ended a similar drought.

“I was worried about the 25 years,” Frankel said. “I thought maybe destiny wanted that horse to win.”

Funny Cide was the 17th Derby-Preakness winner to fall short of the sweep and the ninth straight since Affirmed. The loss also cost his owners the $5million Triple Crown bonus, though the $110,000 for third pushed the one-time $75,000 purchase over $2million in career earnings.

The result was a major heartbreak for much of the crowd that bet Funny Cide into the even-money favorite, meaning 50 percent of all win wagers were on him. So much for racing gaining its next superstar on the eve of the expected blockbuster movie “Seabiscuit.”

“I feel bad for all the people who came out,” Funny Cide trainer Barclay Tagg said. “We were beaten by a good horse. I don’t know what else to say. I am being honest. It is horse racing.”

Funny Cide also was the first Triple Crown seeker to lose on a wet Belmont track that Santos said troubled the gelding. The fractions were fair given the sloppy conditions and Funny Cide led for nearly the first mile, but Santos sensed he was slipping early in the race.

“Funny Cide wasn’t handling the track today,” he said. “On the first turn, he was going nowhere and I knew I was in big trouble. It’s not an excuse. If the horse isn’t there, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Funny Cide led quickly in a six-horse field that was devoid of an early speedster. Instead, the field covered the first half of the race in a sensible 1:13 2/5 that set up a sprint on the final turn that often defines the longest U.S. major stakes race well before the stretch. Empire Maker quickly pulled away from Funny Cide on the final turn to lead by 1 lengths entering the lane.

“You could hear the roar of the crowd coming for home,” Bailey said.

They were cheering Empire Maker, who won the Wood Memorial at nearby Aqueduct over Funny Cide to become the heavy Derby favorite but finished second when he was bothered by a bruised hoof. Empire Maker was clearly the best yesterday with nearly a quarter-mile remaining, but Ten Most Wanted made it interesting in the final yards while closing to three-fourths length.

“The last eighth of a mile was close,” said Ten Most Wanted trainer Wally Dollase, “but he wasn’t going to beat that winner today.”

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