Frankel's Last Laugh

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 silent.

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 desperation.

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 horse."

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 horse."

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 hear."

"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 racetrackers.

"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 wonderful country."

 

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