10/02/2003 11:00PM

Don't blame Empire Maker


NEW YORK - It is no better than even money that the best 3-year-old in the country this year will be recognized as the champion of his division at year's end.

Empire Maker, who was officially retired to stud last week, deserves the Eclipse Award as the top colt of his age. Forget that he was clearly the most talented colt; he wins on performance as well as potential. He has two rivals for the honor and holds a combined 5-1 record against them: He beat Funny Cide two of the three times they met, and is 3-0 against Ten Most Wanted.

Yet the widespread disappointment over the injuries and illnesses that limited his campaign, and now the anger among fans and Eclipse voters over his premature retirement from the sport, may well conspire to deprive him of the honor.

When the retirement announcement was made this week, trainer Bobby Frankel called Empire Maker the best horse he has ever trained and said that the colt was many lengths better than he ever had a chance to prove. It was meant as a tribute to a colt Frankel clearly adored, but it also summed up exactly why people are so bitter about the way the game is played today: Why isn't Empire Maker being given the chance to prove he's that good by racing next year as a 4-year-old?

The easy answer is money. At a stud fee of $100,000, Empire Maker conceivably can generate $10 million or more as a stallion in 2004, and it's highly unlikely he can make that much on the racetrack. Also, should he falter or continue to have physical problems, there's a chance he could not command that fee entering stud in 2005.

These economics come and go depending on the strength of the bloodstock market, which, fortunately for breeders and unfortunately for fans, is strong right now. In the pre-boom market of the late 1970's, star 3-year-olds such as Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, and Spectacular Bid all came back as 4-year-olds. In the early 1980's, as crazy yearling prices spurred massive stallion syndications, colts such as Devil's Bag and Conquistador Cielo became $36 million stallions instead of 4-year-old racehorses.

The trend goes back and forth every few years, and now we live in a time when a Fusaichi Pegasus, Point Given, or Empire Maker has little chance of racing at 4.

Raising race purses won't help. How much bigger a lure to stay in training can there be than a season full of inflated purses for handicap horses, usually drawing five-horse fields for $750,000 or $1 million, and capped off by a $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic?

The missing element is sportsmanship, especially among those who can most afford to take the high road. Owners such as The Thoroughbred Corporation and Juddmonte Farm are not going to lose the family farm or start eating pork and beans out of a can if they don't rush their stars off to stud. They have to want to enjoy racing their best horses and feel an obligation to the game to do so, and they simply don't.

While that's certainly disheartening to the rest of us, it's not a reason to deprive a horse of a championship he deserves.

NYRA's Meyocks a political sacrifice

Terry Meyocks's forced resignation from the presidency of the New York Racing Association last week was another case of something happening for the wrong reason. He was hired not for political and financial savvy but for his skill, enthusiasm, and knowledge at running the racing part of a track operation. There is no question that the racing end of New York racing flourished and improved during his tenure.

NYRA's lax oversight of its money room and overall finances, problems worthy of criticism and correction but well short of criminal behavior, were as much a failing of its board as its president. Meyocks became a political sacrifice when NYRA came under attack from Democratic politicians looking to raise their own profiles, put the NYRA franchise up for grabs, and revisit the slot-machine issue.

The interim appointment of retired financial executives Steve Duncker and Peter Karches as unpaid co-chief operating officers is a good first step that should stabilize the organization and quiet the political dogs. The question then will be whether NYRA will strive for the same excellence in serving its customers as it has achieved in serving its horsemen, in order to prove itself worthy of continued stewardship of the game.