SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - When they make the movie of Funny Cide and Empire Maker's rematch in the Travers, they can alter realty for drama's sake and film the two horses winning their prep race. Fact is, they both lost.
Empire Maker, winner of the Belmont, finished a fast-closing second yesterday in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga in upstate New York.
The races were supposed to set up the dramatic rematch of Triple Crown rivals in the Travers Stakes on Aug. 23 at Saratoga. Ever since Empire Maker spoiled Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid in the Belmont, racing fans have anticipated their meeting again in the illustrious Travers, appropriately called the mid-summer Derby.
Instead, Strong Hope held off the late charge of Empire Maker to snag the $500,000 Jim Dandy by a neck. Winning his fifth straight race for the red-hot trainer Todd Pletcher, the $1.7 million son of Grand Slam completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute, 48.10 seconds and returned $15.40 to win as the bettors' second choice. Empire Maker was the overwhelming favorite at 1-5.
In the $1 million Haskell, Peace Rules led gate to wire for a 1 3/4 -length victory over Sky Mesa. Another stellar resident of Bobby Frankel's powerful barn, Peace Rules covered 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute, 49.10 seconds and paid $6.80 to win as the second choice.
Funny Cide, the even-money favorite, claimed third, rumbling under the wire 7 1/4 lengths behind Sky Mesa. The speedy New York-bred gelding relaxed early, as his trainer Barclay Tagg wanted, but labored in fifth down the backstretch and never threatened the winner.
"I don't know what to say," Tagg said. "He didn't do any running."
Said Jose Santos, Funny Cide's jockey: "He broke real nice. I had a good hold of him, but he just spit the bit [stopped trying] at the six-furlong pole. After that, he was just traveling along. He just wasn't the same horse I rode in his previous races."
Funny Cide's appearance at the festive track attracted a record crowd of 53,638 for a horse race in New Jersey. But Peace Rules stole the show. He'd won four straight before finishing third in the Kentucky Derby and fourth in the Preakness. This was his first race since the Preakness.
Frankel said he envisioned Peace Rules' breaking behind the speed horses in the Haskell. But the son of Jules was so sharp that he blitzed to the lead.
"It didn't work out the way we planned early, but it did in the end," said Edgar Prado, his jockey. "He wanted to go out there running. In the stretch, he found another gear."
Strong Hope found another gear, too, as Empire Maker roared at him down Saratoga's famed stretch in front of an announced crowd of 65,346 (many were "spinners" collecting Native Dancer T shirts, the giveaway with a paid admission).
Strong Hope had secured the lead with an aggressive break, while Empire Maker, as Funny Cide had, lagged in fifth down the backstretch.
Empire Maker swept into third with a powerful surge around the far turn, but his electrifying burst in deep stretch fell a neck short. He would have collared Strong Hope in a few strides.
Pletcher said he'll point the late-developing colt to the 1 1/4 -mile Travers. Will the extra eighth mile benefit Empire Maker?
"You've got to think Empire Maker's best furlong is going to be his last," Pletcher said of Empire Maker.
Frankel was surprisingly upbeat after Empire Maker's defeat.
"He's a funny-running horse sometimes, who seems to run in spots," Frankel said. "It looked like he was going to finish third. Then he took off in the last sixteenth of a mile.
"It didn't look like he was focused. I think I need to train him a little harder to keep him focused. ... I don't feel that bad about losing this race. I think this will set him up for the Travers."
Frankel said he'll decide whether to try Peace Rules in the Travers. He said he isn't sure the handsome chestnut colt can handle the longer distance.