07/29/2003 11:00PM

Different paths to reach same goal

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LAS VEGAS - Funny Cide and Empire Maker make their first starts since the Belmont Stakes this weekend, but they will take separate routes to the Travers Stakes on Aug. 23.

Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero Funny Cide will use the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth for his prep while his Belmont Stakes conqueror, Empire Maker, will prep in Saratoga's Jim Dandy. Funny Cide and Empire Maker will be heavy favorites in their respective races, but neither colt is a lock to win.

Haskell

The Haskell is traditionally won by 3-year-olds who use tactical speed to their advantage over Monmouth's typically speed-favoring oval. The race has been a successful prep for the Travers, and its rich history includes many memorable battles.

Skip Trial defeated Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck and Belmont Stakes winner Creme Fraiche in 1985. Skip Away, Skip Trial's best offspring, won the 1996 Haskell. Wise Times proved that his 1986 Haskell victory over Personal Flag and Belmont Stakes winner Danzig Connection was no fluke when he returned to win the Travers.

In 1987, Bet Twice, Alysheba, and Lost Code put on a great show, and in 1988 Forty Niner's narrow victory over Seeking the Gold was duplicated in the Travers. Holy Bull regained luster that was lost in the Kentucky Derby with a resounding score in 1994, and parlayed it into a Travers win. Serena's Song defeated males in 1995, and Touch Gold followed his 1997 Belmont Stakes victory with another stylish performance in the Haskell.

The eccentric but talented Coronado's Quest scored a Haskell-Travers double in 1998, and Menifee captured the 1999 Haskell over Cat Thief and Forestry. The brilliant Dixie Union defeated Captain Steve and Milwaukee Brew (who is still going strong at age 6) in 2000, and Point Given won both the Haskell and Travers in 2002.

Last year, Monmouth Park's glib surface was the perfect remedy for War Emblem, who failed in the Belmont following Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories.

While Funny Cide heads an expected field of seven, three of his challengers come into the Haskell with impressive credentials. A victory would greatly enhance their careers as stallions.

* Sky Mesa: Undefeated at 2, Sky Mesa was one of last year's highly regarded juveniles along with Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old champion Vindication and multiple stakes winner Toccet. None of them, however, made it to this year's Triple Crown, and Sky Mesa is the only colt to have raced this year.

Sky Mesa's third in the Dwyer Stakes was a good effort considering it was his first race in eight months. A healthy and in-form Sky Mesa poses the biggest threat to Funny Cide. By Pulpit, from the exceptional female family that produced Buckpasser, Sky Mesa has unlimited potential, both as a racehorse and stallion.

- Peace Rules: As game as they come, Peace Rules's admirable third in the Kentucky Derby took its toll. While he was a spent horse going into the Preakness and offered little challenge to Funny Cide, expect a very different result in the Haskell. Freshened since the Preakness, Peace Rule's high speed makes him a natural threat at Monmouth and he fits the profile of past Haskell winners.

- Wild and Wicked: Undefeated and untested, Wild and Wicked is truly the Haskell's wild card. A half-brother to Grade 1 winner The Wicked North, Wild and Wicked comes into the Haskell much the same way as Dynever came into the Belmont. Dynever could have been more of a factor, but a muddy track proved his undoing. As the projected fourth choice, Wild and Wicked should offer value in the exotics.

Jim Dandy

Empire Maker has a strong edge in the Jim Dandy and has been training smartly, but Saratoga isn't called the "Graveyard of Favorites" for nothing. The Jim Dandy is named for the colt who upset Gallant Fox in the 1930 Travers Stakes at 100-1. A look at the horses scheduled to face Empire Maker:

- During: He showed heart in winning the Swaps Stakes after surrendering the lead in the stretch. The son of Cherokee Run makes the race interesting because of his tactical speed. He should sit right behind Strong Hope but it is doubtful he can outkick Empire Maker.

- Strong Hope: Stretching out to nine furlongs after winning the Dwyer at 1 1/16 miles, distance is still an issue for Strong Hope. While it's not inconceivable that a son of speed influence Grand Slam could get nine furlongs, it is more likely to happen around one turn than two.

- Nacheezmo: He was running strongly at the end of the Dwyer, but like Strong Hope, it's difficult to believe that a son of sprint sire Carson City will be as effective at

1 1/8 miles.

- Congrats: This colt is the sleeper. He won his 2-year-old debut last year over this surface but went through myriad growing pains and just recently returned to the races. By A.P. Indy out of Praise (a daughter of Mr. Prospector out of Wild Applause), Congrats is well suited to the Jim Dandy distance. His dam is a half-sister to stakes winners Blare of Trumpets, Eastern Echo, and Roar, and his third dam is 1993 Broodmare of the Year Glowing Tribute.

- Tafaseel: He also has an impressive pedigree and has found a new career in this country with the addition of Lasix following some poor races in Dubai. By speed influence Belong to Me, Tafaseel gets a truckload of class from his dam, Runup the Colors (A.P. Indy), a stakes winner who is very closely related to Mineshaft and Tomisue's Delight.