Steve Haskin's Belmont Story: Last Laugh

Steve Haskin's Belmont Story: Last Laugh
Photo:
Empire Maker holds off a stiff challenge from Ten Most Wanted to deny Funny Cide the Crown.
Published in the June 14 issue of The Blood-Horse
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. They could feel it. 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.

Although it has become obvious by now that Walt Disney does not write the scripts for the Triple Crown, 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.

Continued...

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