ELMONT, N.Y. — Another Triple Crown was lost, but racing might have found its best rivalry since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer dueled in 1989.
Empire Maker was greeted by boos and catcalls after he beat Funny Cide in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday. The crowd of 100,864 wanted to see Funny Cide, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, become the 12th Triple Crown winner and first in 25 years. The gelding captured the public’s interest and drew perhaps the most raucous crowd since Affirmed clinched the 1978 Triple Crown at Belmont Park.
However, trainer Bobby Frankel and jockey Jerry Bailey took on a “put-up-or-shut-up” attitude before the race, claiming Empire Maker was the better horse, and then went out and proved it. Empire Maker has beaten Funny Cide in two of their three meetings, winning the Wood Memorial and finishing second in the Derby.
“He’s the best 3-year-old I’ve ever been on,” Bailey said. “I think he’ll prove the best as the year goes on.”
Which horse is better may take months to settle, though. The two are expected to meet in the Travers Stakes on Aug.23 at Saratoga (N.Y.) and the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct.25 at Santa Anita (Calif.) Park. Belmont runner-up Ten Most Wanted is also expected to be at that one. Funny Cide is first expected to enter the Haskell Invitational on Aug.3 at Monmouth (N.J.) Park while Empire Maker will enter the Jim Dandy Stakes on Aug.3 at Saratoga.
“There will be a lot of talking in between the next race,” Funny Cide jockey Jose Santos said. “There will be a lot of controversy back and forth. Maybe it will be like boxers? … I can’t wait for Funny Cide and Empire Maker to meet again. It will be a great rematch.”
Two classic victories give Funny Cide a slight lead in the race for 3-year-old colt honors, but Horse of the Year and divisional crowns should be decided by the horses’ next two meetings. Sunday Silence, which won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, beat Belmont winner Easy Goer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic by inches to claim top honors.
Funny Cide, a gelding with no breeding future, will race for several years if he remains healthy. Empire Maker might also run as a 4-year-old considering his Saudi prince owner doesn’t need the lucrative breeding income.
Racing has been energized by Funny Cide’s emergence, but a rivalry will continue to fuel interest nationwide even though both colts are stabled in New York.
“It’s good for the game if there’s a rivalry,” Frankel said. “It would be exciting.”
Santos wasn’t discouraged by becoming the ninth jockey since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978 to win the first two jewels but fall short in the Belmont. Funny Cide ran the 10th fastest Derby and won the Preakness by its widest margin since the 1873 inaugural. The horse’s legitimacy is unquestioned. Santos claimed Funny Cide didn’t handle the sloppy Belmont track and the third-place finish didn’t indicate inferiority.
“He will be back and I’ll be riding him,” Santos said. “If we catch a good track you’ll see how Funny Cide runs.”
Frankel conceded the Triple Crown sweep requires a perfect setting and Funny Cide was the first of 17 double crown winners to face a sloppy track. It might not have been the difference in finishing five lengths back, but it did provide an excuse.
“Unless you’re Secretariat, you have to have things go smooth for you,” Frankel said. “And even Secretariat got beat.”
Funny Cide and Empire Maker are clearly the top two 3-year-olds, but Ten Most Wanted earned redemption with a strong late run for second. After suffering a back injury leaving the Derby starting gate and finishing ninth, the Illinois Derby winner showed he’ll factor in coming stakes.
Dynever was exposed as a second-tier runner, though. Making his Triple Crown debut after not racing as a juvenile, the Lone Star Derby winner was the “wise guy” pick in the Belmont. Instead, he was a distant fourth and no longer touted as his generation’s dark horse.
Scrimshaw joined Funny Cide as the only colts to enter all three Triple Crown races. However, he was never a factor and finished last in the Belmont. Scrimshaw may have a future in shorter races.
Note — The Belmont Stakes produced the highest overnight rating for any horse race since the 1990 Kentucky Derby. The 10.4 rating was also the highest overnight rating for the Belmont Stakes since at least 1987, when Alysheba’s attempt at the Triple Crown produced a 9.2 overnight rating. It was also a 13 percent increase from the 2002 race.