06/08/2003 11:00PM

Brooklyn boy gets a Bronx cheer


ELMONT, N.Y. - The repatriation of Brooklyn Bobby Frankel is almost complete. For the last three years, his horses have run rampant through the East Coast, winning nearly every major race. Frankel sightings have become rare at both Hollywood Park and Del Mar. He has a home-to-die-for in coastal L.A., but he is in the process of buying a house on Long Island. And now, just to seal the deal, he has won the biggest New York race of them all, the Belmont Stakes.

So why is this town booing?

It was an odd sound to the ears of an innocent Californian. The only time you hear "boo" out West is on Halloween from under a sheet worn by an 8-year-old begging for candy. But there it was, filling the air. As Empire Maker jogged back to the stands last Saturday, after beating Ten Most Wanted and Funny Cide at the end of an exhausting 1 1/2 miles, you would have thought the 135th Belmont Stakes had just been won by a four-legged version of Darth Vader. Or Jack the Ripper.

Maybe it was Frankel's bad guy outfit-black suit and black tie. Maybe it was Empire Maker's black blinkers, now flecked with mud from the sloppy Belmont track. Or maybe it was Jerry Bailey's black gloves, with which he gestured hopefully to the crowd for some positive reinforcement.

The crowd went "booooo," so Bailey pointed to his colt, as if to say, "Not for me. For him!"

The crowd went "booooo" some more, so Bailey gave up and waved them away with his black-gloved hand.

Fortunately, Humberto Ascanio, Frankel's top assistant, was right there to greet the Belmont winner, dancing in the mud with his arms raised high. Ruben Losa, Frankel's bull-chested foreman, snapped on the shank, and soon Frankel arrived - after watching the race on television in the racing secretary's office - along with Dr. John Chandler of Juddmonte Farms.

This is a pretty buttoned-down bunch - Frankel, Chandler, Ascanio, and Losa - together with exercise rider and assistant Jose Cuevas. Except for Bobby's occasional in-your-face lapses ("To tell you the truth, I can't see him losing"), they don't let much leak, and they usually allow their horses to do the talking. Which might be why their clear and present dominance of the game has taken on a kind of assembly line feel, and why the New York crowd, so desperately longing for a Funny Cide Triple Crown, reacted with such vocal distaste at the results.

Or maybe it was because they were just tired of standing in the rain.

For 10 solid hours, many of them had waited, from the opening of the gates to the 6:38 post time for the race. The rain arrived late in the morning and never stopped to catch its breath, slicing the announced crowd count of 101,000 by who knows how many and forcing fans to seek all manner of shelter. By 6:38 in the evening, they were soaked through, tapped out, and ready to see what they came to see, and that was definitely not a victory by Empire Maker.

"It's a little sad that Frankel didn't get the applause and the cheers that he deserves, because Empire Maker was obviously the better horse in this race," said Jon P. Constance, one of Funny Cide's Sackatoga Stable partners. "But remember, his horse had been on a five-week layoff. We've been running long and hard for the last five weeks. Five or six weeks from now could Funny Cide do it again? Hell yes, he could beat anybody that was out there!"

Constance was on the fourth floor of the Belmont clubhouse, surrounded by the large Funny Cide entourage (three school busloads). Among them there were scattered pockets of frustration - red eyes, crumpled tickets, dashed plans for that $5 million Visa Triple Crown bonus - but for the most part the place sounded like a party that was nowhere near the end.

"How can you be sad?" said Jack Knowlton, Sackatoga's managing partner. "What a run. What a run. We never thought we'd be here. We weren't supposed to be here. He still won two-thirds of the Triple Crown, and third in the Belmont Stakes is not too shabby for a New York-bred."

Similar sentiments were being expressed downstairs, in the tunnel leading from the track to the jockeys' room, where a group of Chilean fans had unfurled their national flag and were serenading Jose Santos, Funny Cide's Chilean rider, with a full-throated chorus straight from a soccer stadium terrace:

"Jose! Jose! Ole-ole-ole!"

"How can you be disappointed?" Santos said. "If he had finished last I wouldn't be disappointed. You can't beat yourself up."

That may be the best thing about the 135th Belmont, the lesson to be remembered above and beyond all others. Funny Cide's run to the Triple Crown was one of those rare events that defies conventional wisdom. It was a gift. No grumbling allowed.

Best of all, the show is far from finished. As they watched their warriors unwind in the test barn after the race, Barclay Tagg, the man behind Funny Cide, and Wally Dollase, who trains Ten Most Wanted, tossed an unmistakable challenge Frankel's way.

"I'll see you at the Travers," Dollase vowed.

"We'll be there," Tagg replied.