The Empire strikes back!

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 8, 2003

NEW YORK -- Funny Cide's improbable run at the Triple Crown ended in the mud Saturday at the Belmont Stakes, splashed aside by a rival who wasn't about to let a gelded nobody become part of racing royalty.

Empire Maker caught Funny Cide on the far turn and beat him soundly, a defeat that left racing still longing for its first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. That stretch is now the longest in history.

Despite a steady rain, Funny Cide drew the second-largest Belmont crowd, 101,864, who hoped to see the New York-bred join the likes of Triple Crown winners Secretariat and War Admiral. It was not to be.

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Instead, he became the fifth Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner in the last seven years to come up short in the 1 1-2-mile Belmont.

This time Empire Maker turned the tables on Funny Cide, who upset trainer Bobby Frankel's colt in the Kentucky Derby. The colt ran up alongside Funny Cide with three eighths of a mile to go and jockey Jerry Bailey cruised home in the slop, holding off closer Ten Most Wanted by three quarters of a length.

Funny Cide, sent right to the lead by jockey Jose Santos, finished third, five lengths behind the winner. The first gelding to challenge for the Triple Crown never seemed to handle the sloppy surface.

Empire Maker gave Frankel his first win in a Triple Crown race. The Hall of Famer was 0-9 in the series, but had come close twice before in the Belmont. Medaglia d'Oro was second last year, and Aptitude was the runner-up in 2000.

In the days leading up to the race, Frankel relished the role of spoiler, saying, ''I hope everybody hates me after the race -- then I'll know I did well.''

Bailey said he knew he had Funny Cide beat ''from the top of the backside.''

''I knew he'd wear himself out,'' he said.

Santos' son and daughter were tearing up before the horses even entered the starting gate. And after the chestnut ran out of gas in the stretch, the jockey's wife consoled Jose Jr. and told him, ''It's OK.''

Empire Maker, owned by Saudi prince Khalid Abdullah, bruised his foot Derby week and finished 1 3/4 lengths behind Funny Cide. He skipped the Preakness, but was ''dead fit'' for Belmont, Frankel said.

''You know he's the best horse,'' Brooklyn-born Frankel said. ''He pulled up but then he took off when that other horse (Ten Most Wanted) challenged. I wanted the race to shape up like that.''

Funny Cide's trainer Barclay Tagg was disappointed he couldn't deliver a Triple Crown.

''I feel bad for all the people who were behind him wanting him to win this,'' Tagg said. ''I was pretty confident.''

Funny Cide put in a sizzling final workout Tuesday, leading to speculation that he might have left his best race on the track.

Tagg said that wasn't the case.

''I really truly think that had nothing to do with it,'' he said. ''You never know what they're going to do in mud.''

Only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown. Sir Barton became the first in 1919.

The loss also denied Funny Cide's owners a $5 million bonus, along with the $600,000 Belmont purse.