As the field
passed the three-eighths pole in the 135th Belmont Stakes (gr. I) on June 7,
the massive, rain-drenched crowd, snake bitten by years of dashed hopes, braced
for the inevitable. They had been here four of the past six years, and eight of
the past 25 years, hoping to be part of history. Each time, their cheers fell
Although they had every right to
be skeptical, there was a widespread feeling that this year would be different.
The golden carriage named Funny Cide was not going to change into a pumpkin, as
so many others had in the past. After a quarter of a century, it was time for
fairy tale and reality to cross paths.
But then it happened...again.
Just as a flood of emotion was about to spill out from the packed grandstand
and onto to the vast Belmont
track, the director yelled "cut," the images faded to black, and
racing's long-awaited fairy tale was shelved, joining the other recent
unfinished fables of the Turf.
Earlier in the day, as the first
drops of rain began to fall, Christophe Clement, trainer of Belmont contender Dynever, said, "It's
in the hands of the gods." And the gods decreed that on this day it shall
be Juddmonte Farms' Empire Maker, not Funny Cide, who be given the power to walk
on water. That's pretty much what the regally bred son of Unbridled had to do,
as he sloshed his way to a three-quarters of a length victory over a courageous
Ten Most Wanted, with Funny Cide another 4 1/4 lengths back in third.
Despite the disappointment of
another Triple Crown lost, the best thing about the Sport of Kings is that it
always provides a storybook ending for someone. So, as thousands of dejected
fans filed out of Belmont
Park, once again doused
by the hard reality of Thoroughbred racing, the reigning king of the sport,
Bobby Frankel, was celebrating his first classic victory. The street kid from
Brooklyn had returned to his hometown to claim New York's biggest prize.
Frankel had been slugging it out
with Funny Cide all year, with Empire Maker and Edmund Gann's Peace Rules.
Round 1 in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) went to Frankel (Peace Rules first,
Funny Cide third); Round 2 in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) went to Frankel (Empire
Maker first, Funny Cide second); Rounds 3 and 4 went to Funny Cide in the
Kentucky Derby (gr. I) (Funny Cide first, Empire Maker second, and Peace Rules
third); and Round 5 went to Funny Cide in the Preakness (gr. I) (Funny Cide
first, Peace Rules fourth). So, there it stood at three rounds to two in favor
of Funny Cide heading into the Belmont.
With Funny Cide's coronation as
the divine ruler of Turfdom only a race away, and in the New York-bred's own
domain no less, onetime 3-year-old king Empire Maker now had to switch gears
and take on the role as empire breaker. Unlike the transient monarchs of recent
years, Funny Cide conceivably could have ruled over a good portion of the
decade, and Frankel, with his arsenal of potential champions, wanted to stop
his ascent to the throne now. He was well aware that if Funny Cide won the
Belmont Stakes, his name could be inscribed on at least one Eclipse Award, with
the big one (Horse of the Year) likely to follow. Frankel was convinced he had
the true champion, and that Empire Maker would reclaim his rightful place atop
the 3-year-old division.
It became blasphemous, especially
in New York,
to express one's opposition to Funny Cide and his glorious quest to enter the
pantheon of the immortals. But Frankel defended his forgotten hero with a
fervor that was perceived by Funny Cide worshipers as cockiness and arrogance.
The competitive Frankel wanted this one more than any race in his career, and
was firm in his belief that it should be Empire Maker trying for the Triple
Crown instead of Funny Cide. There was no doubt in his mind that it was a foot
bruise and several missed days of training during Derby Week that prevented
that scenario from unfolding.
All Frankel wanted was to send a
fit horse into battle against Funny Cide, and that meant getting four works
into him at Belmont Park. The first two works went perfectly. But then the
weather played havoc with the training schedule of the Belmont-based
contenders. With four straight days of rain pounding the Northeast, Frankel's
concern about getting Empire Maker fit enough to go 1 1/2 miles turned to
On May 24, with the forecast
still ominous, he put his complex network of brain cells into motion and was
able to solve the problem, at least to some degree. He decided to enter Empire
Maker in the Jersey Derby (gr. III) at Monmouth on May 26, which had just been
taken off the grass. Later that afternoon, he happened to be in racing
secretary Mike Lakow's office when Clement walked in and asked for permission
to work Dynever on the grass Sunday (May 25) morning. That idea had escaped
Frankel, but it sounded good to him. Just like that, it was goodbye Jersey
Derby, hello Belmont
inner turf course. Empire Maker worked a solid five furlongs on the yielding
turf and Frankel was happy.
The rains continued, and Frankel
still had another work, the final and most important one, coming up.
Over at Barn 6, things were
heating up between Funny Cide's trainer Barclay Tagg and the media. Tagg's
barn, except for a daily 10:30 a.m. interview, was off limits to the press, as
Tagg tried everything possible to keep his star cloistered from the outside
world. "It's hard enough to gallop this horse," Tagg said. "It's
hard enough to work him and keep him settled. To have 50 guys out there with
cameras chasing him around is the last thing he needs. He's not a circus
Was Tagg beginning to unravel
under the pressure, as some believed? "You want to know what pressure
is?" Tagg said. "Pressure is being flat broke with two kids in
college and one horse left in your stable, and you've got to haul it on a
trailer to Penn National for the 11th race on a snowy night. And if you don't
get there you're gonna be fired. Then you sit in the trailer with a blanket
wrapped around you all night long waiting for your race to come. That's
pressure. There's a lot of misery in this game, but you grind it out and hope
something good happens."
At the opposite end of the
spectrum, the Funny Cide partnership known as Sackatoga Stable was becoming a
household name. They even started up a Funny Cide Web site, with its own
merchandising store, while making personal appearances all over the state and
showing up on numerous network telecasts.
Frankel, meanwhile, remained
focused on his own horse. All he saw on Funny Cide's chestnut hide was a big
bull's-eye, and he knew once he got in this last work, he'd have Empire Maker
dead on target to spoil the big party. Frankel, who lives in Southern
California, is in a transition period, having just bought a new town house in
North Hills, about eight miles from Belmont. Accompanying him to the track
every day was the love of his life, his 3-year-old Australian Shepherd, Happy,
who lavishes him with affection and literally jumps for joy every time he
enters his office.
The day before Empire Maker's
scheduled work on May 31, jockey Jerry Bailey showed up at Frankel's barn and
echoed the trainer's words that he truly believed he had the better horse.
"Hey, if he beats us, what are you gonna do?" Frankel said to Bailey.
"All this pre-race bull don't mean a thing. We'll see who's the better
When Bailey came by the following
morning, jockey Aaron Gryder, who handled Empire Maker two works back, was
already there. Frankel told Bailey he'd be working Riva Ridge Breeders' Cup
Stakes (gr. II) contender Midas Eyes and Gryder would be on Empire Maker.
"Whatever you want to do,
buddy," Bailey said to Frankel. "Listen, my best interest is getting
him there the right way. However it comes about, the end result is the most
important thing. I'll check my ego right at that door."
Frankel watched from the
clubhouse apron as Empire Maker worked six furlongs in a strong 1:13 over a
deep track. "Look at the stride on that horse," Frankel said. "I
can tell how he's moving he worked good. I'm tickled. That was just what he
needed. He looked great and he finished strong. This week is going really
differently than the week before the Derby."
When Frankel met Gryder coming
back to the barn, he asked him, "Will he win? That's all I want to
"Yeah, he'll win,"
Gryder said. "I've been trying to help you win a classic for years."
"Well, we screw it up all
the time," Frankel joked. As Empire Maker passed by, Frankel took a deep
breath. "Whew, he's exciting; I'm excited," he said. "Now, we'll
just see what he's made of."
Frankel has been singing Empire
Maker's praises since the Unbridled colt out of Toussaud was a foal, at his
owner's Juddmonte Farms near Lexington.
After a third in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) at two and a second in the Sham
Stakes in his 3-year-old debut, Empire Maker was equipped with blinkers, and
the transformation was remarkable, as he romped to a 9 3/4-length victory in
the Florida Derby (gr. I), before beating Funny Cide by a half-length in the
Wood Memorial, a race in which Bailey believes he could have won by five
lengths had he asked him.
On June 3, Funny Cide went out
for his much-anticipated work and tore up the track with a blazing five
furlongs in :57 4/5, after a half-mile in :45. The work drew mixed reviews from
"That was scary," said
Jose Santos' agent Mike Sellitto. Santos'
reaction was equally as short and to the point. "I've got chills
now," he said. Private clocker Joe Petrucione also was impressed. "He
was like a runaway freight train," he said.
"Forget him; he's
done," Frankel said after Funny Cide's quick drill. "He needed that
like he needed a hole in the head. If he was my horse, I'd walk him for two
days and pray." When Empire Maker's exercise rider, Jose Cuevas, heard the
time, all he said was, "Oh my God!"
For Bailey's agent, Ron Anderson,
who felt all along that Funny Cide was cooked after being pushed to win the
Preakness by 9 3/4 lengths and getting outrageous speed figures, this was the
proverbial nail in the coffin. "That was a terrible work," Anderson said. "He's
gonna run off in the Belmont
and get beat an eighth of a mile."
Later that day, Ten Most Wanted
arrived from Hollywood
Park. The wise-guy horse
in the Kentucky Derby who had romped in the Illinois Derby (gr. II), Ten Most
Wanted was compromised by a severe bumping incident at Churchill Downs,
resulting in a back injury that had since been corrected. Aimee Dollase,
assistant trainer to her father, Wally, said the son of Deputy Commander was in
super shape and had gotten his energy level back up after seeming
"down" and "kind of knocked out" during Derby Week. The
morning after the Derby,
Wally Dollase was on the phone with part owner Mike Jarvis, and told him,
"I'm pushing down on the horse's hind end as we speak and he's wincing in
pain. We can't even get him to jog." With all his problems now a thing of
the past, Ten Most Wanted seemed ready for a big effort.
On June 5, two days before the Belmont, Empire Maker
turned in an awesome gallop over a muddy track. Frankel's face lit up.
"Look at him; he's not even breaking a sweat," Frankel said,
"He's gonna win. Let's get it on; I'm ready."
The big day finally arrived, with
the rain beginning earlier than expected. "I'm not nervous at all,"
Frankel said Belmont
morning. "I did the best I could do. He's the one who's got to do it now.
I just feel bad for the crowd."
Despite the steady rain, a wildly
enthusiastic crowd of 101,864 showed up hoping to finally witness history.
There had been a 25-year gap between Triple Crown winners when Secretariat won
in 1973, and now it was 25 years since Affirmed's Triple Crown sweep in 1978.
The planets seemed to be aligning in favor of Funny Cide.
Six horses went to the post, with
Funny Cide the even-money favorite, and Empire Maker second choice at 2-1. As
post time of 6:40 drew near, a mosaic of umbrellas began to form around the
paddock. Funny Cide was on his toes, but his energy was controlled. Empire
Maker, once a quirky teenager prone to oddball antics, in five weeks had turned
into a finely tuned, professional racehorse. Frankel wondered if he was too
relaxed in the paddock. His instructions to Bailey were simple: "You ride
him like you want to ride him."
The boos for Empire Maker began
as the colt led the field through the tunnel from the paddock. When Funny Cide
entered the tunnel, the crowd let out a sustained roar that was deafening. But
the Derby and
Preakness winner was in a zone and paid no attention.
The start was clean, with Empire
Maker outbreaking the field from post 1. Santos
quickly put Funny Cide on the lead, with Scrimshaw on his inside. Bailey could
have slipped through along the rail, but his ideal trip was to stalk Funny Cide
from the outside. He saw a seam forming behind the two leaders and pulled
Empire Maker off the rail, slipped in front of Dynever, and just like that, found
himself right where he wanted to be, on the outside of Funny Cide, sitting just
off his flank.
It was apparent as they headed
down the backstretch that Funny Cide was fighting Santos' restraint and was continuously
changing leads. Bailey and Empire Maker had moved up into second and were in
perfect sync, with Bailey's back motionless and horizontal, while Santos was up at a
45-degree angle, his head bobbing up and down. The early fractions of :23.85
and :48.70 were solid enough on the sloppy track. Santos, pulling back hard on Funny Cide,
slowed the pace down to 1:13.51 for the three-quarters. But the Empire was
ready to strike. Bailey had not even moved his hands yet, and Santos was already starting to pump his arms
aboard Funny Cide.
Midway around the turn, Bailey
handed the ball over to Empire Maker and let him take it from there. He cruised
up alongside Funny Cide, and it was obvious by now that there would be no
Triple Crown winner. Right behind the top two, Ten Most Wanted, under Pat Day,
was closing in, reaching out beautifully with his enormous strides. Bailey
threw a cross on Empire Maker after turning for home and set sail for the wire.
Ten Most Wanted had lost a bit of momentum cutting the corner, but had already
collared Funny Cide, who was under the whip and going nowhere.
As he passed the quarter pole,
Bailey was engulfed by the roar of the crowd. "It was deafening," he
said. "I always gave Churchill Downs the highest noise meter rating, but
this topped it. It was unbelievable. It really threw him back and got him out
of his rhythm."
Ten Most Wanted made another run
at Empire Maker inside the eighth pole. Bailey went to a single right-handed
whip, and Empire Maker jumped over to his left lead. He looked to be in
trouble, as Ten Most Wanted was now rolling and right up to his throatlatch.
Bailey switched to a left-handed whip, and Empire Maker changed smoothly back
to his right lead. He gave another spurt, then dug in gamely and held a safe
margin to the wire, winning by three-quarters of a length in 2:28.26.
"I knew I had the best
horse," a beaming and proud Frankel said as he made his way from the
racing secretary's office, where he had watched the race. "I wanted this
more for the horse."
Bailey was ecstatic, as he gave a
couple of short pumps of his fist after passing the wire. But he feared what
was to come. As he returned, he told the outrider, "It's going to be a
shame if they boo this horse." His fears were realized. The crowd, which
had just given Funny Cide a thunderous ovation upon his return, spotted the
villains, and out of the murk of Belmont
Park came a chorus of
boos. "I thought that was pretty crummy," Bailey said the next
morning at the barn, as he fed carrots to Empire Maker. "I kind of half
expected it. I've been booed a lot here. I can take it for myself, but I hated
to see this horse get booed after the courageous race he ran."
Tagg and Santos were gracious in defeat. History, as
it's done so often, had passed them by. But as assistant trainer Robin Smullen
said several days earlier, "He deserves to go down in history. If he
doesn't, he's already made history. It doesn't matter. I'm going to be proud of
him whether he wins or loses."
All Smullen wanted now was to get
back the old Funny Cide and let him have fun being a horse again. "What
I'm looking forward to the most is Sunday or Monday when we can pull his shoes
off and turn him out in the sand pen. He desperately wants to get back in that
pen, and I just want to watch him roll, and rear, and buck, and enjoy himself.
He's earned it."
It is appropriate that Frankel's
first classic victory comes in New York, where
his dominance of the sport since 2001 has been mind-boggling, even more so
considering he doesn't ship into Belmont
Park until May each year.
In just a little over two years, Frankel has won an astounding 32 graded stakes
in New York,
18 of which were grade I.
Juddmonte Farms' owner, Prince
Khalid Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, watched the race from England on his own
television network and was "very excited," according to Juddmonte
manager Dr. John Chandler after the disappointing loss in the Kentucky Derby.
After the winner's circle and
other post-race festivities, Frankel headed back to the barn. Darkness had
fallen on a now-empty Belmont
Park, giving the trainer
a better opportunity to reflect. One word stuck in his mind, and he kept
repeating it: "Redemption. They taught me a new word today," he said.
"I have no regrets about the Derby.
You can't look back. You're so wrong most of the time in this business, it
makes you feel good when you're right once in a while."
As he entered the dimly lit barn
and saw several heads peering out of their stalls, Frankel said, "I wonder
if they know what's going on."
There was one horse he definitely
was going to tell. Frankel found Empire Maker shifting between his feed tub and
hayrack. He walked up to the webbing and said to the horse, "You did
something important today, boy. Bigger and better things now, right?"
The 2003 Triple Crown was over, touching
people's hearts from Saudi Arabia
to Sackets Harbor, and lifting Thoroughbred racing
to a plateau it hasn't seen since the glory days of Secretariat, and Seabiscuit
before that. Perhaps Frankel summed up this year's incredible Triple Crown
journey best when he said, "Where else can you have a Jewish kid from Brooklyn training for a Saudi Arabian prince? It's a