06/04/2003 11:00PM

Belmont Stakes analysis


Sensible horseplayers ordinarily do not waste time on six-horse fields with two standouts, but so what? No one bets every race anyway, and even a Belmont Stakes with zero wagering value still offers plenty - bragging rights and possibly racing's first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.

So who is better - Funny Cide or Empire Maker? Who is more qualified to win a dirt race at 1 1/2 miles? Does anyone else matter? Will upstart Dynever garner as much wise-guy hype before the Belmont as Ten Most Wanted did before he bombed in the Kentucky Derby? Finally, what are distance-challenged Scrimshaw and outclassed Supervisor doing here, anyway?

Fundamentals first. Funny Cide continues to thrive through an enterprising campaign, and while his 57.82-second workout Tuesday was faster than planned, all it really shows is he is as sharp now as April 29 when, four days before winning the Kentucky Derby, he worked a bullet five furlongs in 58.40. Funny Cide remains in absolute peak form.

As for Empire Maker, whose Derby preparation was compromised by a bruised foot, he is a better horse now. His foot has healed and he has trained consistently. He enters the Belmont as a fresh horse with five weeks between starts. This time, Empire Maker enters without an excuse. The question - is he good enough? He was in April, but Funny Cide is a better horse now, too.

Dynever has raced well and trained well. Scrimshaw and Ten Most Wanted are working well, but their Triple Crown debacles throw doubt on condition and class. With overmatched Supervisor, it does not matter. He is a good allowance horse in way over his head.

Based on class, Grade 1 winners Funny Cide and Empire Maker stand out. The other perceived contenders - stakes winners Dynever, Scrimshaw, and Ten Most Wanted - have not proven themselves beyond the Grade 2 level.

Based on speed, Funny Cide and Empire Maker again tower over the field. They consistently earn Beyer Speed Figures in the 110-range, which is more than five lengths faster than the 101's earned by Dynever and Scrimshaw. It's an awfully wide gap. As for the 110 Beyer earned by Ten Most Wanted in the Illinois Derby, his five ordinary races imply one big fig was an aberration.

Funny Cide's tactical speed could provide a slight advantage. In order for Empire Maker to win, he first must catch his rival. The pace advantage for Funny Cide, if there is one, is slight. Dynever possesses a turn of foot that will be a worthy attribute in future races, but not expected to provide significant benefit while racing 1 1/2 miles on dirt. Scrimshaw's tactical speed will make him a pest part of the way, though he is likely to tire and be passed by Ten Most Wanted.

It boils down to the obvious - the Belmont is a match race between the favorites. Empire Maker did suffer lost training time and a wide trip finishing second in the Kentucky Derby. But so far this spring, Funny Cide has required no alibis. All he does is win.

Ten Most Wanted was on a roll coming into the Kentucky Derby. His Beyers had been improving steadily with a 79-86-92-110 pattern. That 110 Beyer was earned in an impressive victory in the Illinois Derby when he made a powerful move from seventh to win going away by four lengths.

The only thing wrong with Ten Most Wanted in the Derby was his price. He figured to contend in the Derby based only on his last race. In that situation, attractive odds are necessary to compensate for the risk he might regress. But Ten Most Wanted became everybody's favorite longshot, so he ceased being a longshot and was sent off at 6-1, which is a modest price for a horse with 15 opponents to beat.

Unfortunately, he got off to a slow start and never reached contention, finishing ninth. The good news is that Ten Most Wanted had a legitimate excuse for his performance. His connections say he sustained a back injury after being bumped at the break, and was sore for days after the race. He is reported to be back on his game now, and his sharp work tab is encouraging. If he is ready to pick up where he left off, Ten Most Wanted will be the betting value in the Belmont at higher odds than he offered in the Derby, and with only five rivals to beat.

Empire Maker missed a couple of days of training, so he might not have been at his best in the Derby. If Ten Most Wanted doesn't run his best race, and if Funny Cide comes up empty because of his rapid workout three days ago, Empire Maker will probably win this race by a large margin. He won't be much of a price, but with serious questions remaining about Funny Cide's ability to recover quickly from his swift drill, Empire Maker may still turn out to be an overlay.

Dynever didn't run particularly fast - earning a 98 Beyer - when he won the Lone Star Derby, but he deserves some extra credit for overcoming traffic trouble that day. He also deserves credit for overcoming a track bias. Eight of the nine winners on the main track were among the first four at the first call, except for Dynever, who rallied from eighth. He should be able to finish strongly enough to participate in the exotics.

Before his Wednesday workout, I liked Funny Cide a lot. His Beyers are a bit better than those of Empire Maker, and he has more natural speed, which is a significant edge with the slow pace likely in this race. We know that Funny Cide took a step forward in the Preakness. Empire Maker, who passed on the Preakness, has to prove he can match Funny Cide's form. But none of that will matter if Funny Cide doesn't run anything close to the race he is capable of because of his blazing 57.82-second work. How much gas can he have left in the tank as he tries to negotiate 1 1/2 miles? I will be rooting for him for sentimental reasons, but my heart and my wallet will part company as I bet against him.

I will bet Ten Most Wanted to win, and will also box Ten Most Wanted and Empire Maker in the exacta. I will also play a cold exacta saver using Empire Maker over Dynever.