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."