06/04/2003 11:00PM

Belmont Stakes Profiles: Empire Maker

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STRENGTHS: Although Empire Maker's aura of invincibility quickly dissipated after his runner-up finish in the Kentucky Derby, he arguably ran his most professional race that day.

While brilliant in his Florida Derby and Wood Memorial victories, Empire Maker had trouble with his lead changes in those races. After a week of abbreviated training due to a bruised foot, he raced wide every step of the way in the Derby, but switched leads on cue and stayed on his correct lead in the stretch. Another five weeks of physical and mental maturity could make all the difference as he tackles Funny Cide in their rubber match.

Empire Maker owns very competitive Beyer Speed Figures and has proven that he can defeat Funny Cide on his best day. He has won at Belmont Park, and he should benefit greatly from the track's wide, sweeping turns.

As a half-brother to Arlington Million winner Chester House by Unbridled, winner of the Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, Empire Maker has the pedigree to handle the demanding 12-furlong distance of the Belmont.

The Juddmonte Farms-Bobby Frankel-Jerry Bailey juggernaut has dominated Grade 1 events for the last few years. It would be unwise to ignore this trio in the Belmont.

WEAKNESSES: It is always difficult to go a route of ground in the first start off a layoff, and Empire Maker will have to run 1 1U2 miles against top-class rivals after a 35-day freshening. Will he have enough foundation to deny Funny Cide the Triple Crown? With more than 100,000 raucous fans expected at Belmont, the sometimes-quirky Empire Maker must be on his best behavior in order to conserve enough energy for the race.

STRATEGY: Bailey may opt to track Funny Cide in the early stages, and begin his rally when the Derby and Preakness winner makes his move on the far turn. From there, it's up to pedigree, stamina, natural ability, and the innate desire to win.

VALUE: Funny Cide figures to take the money, but Empire Maker will also be heavily backed. Odds of 2-1 or 5-2 seem fair for win bettors, but the real value might lie in keying him up and down in exotic wagers.