10/16/2003 12:00AM

Empire Classic fancy, not funny


ELMONT, N.Y. - The Empire Classic at Belmont Park on Saturday lost some of its allure when Funny Cide defected to the Breeders' Cup Classic. But the race should still hold appeal for fans.

A solid field of nine colts and geldings entered the $250,000 Empire Classic, one of seven stakes for New York-breds on New York Showcase Day. The 1 1/8-mile Empire Classic is the finale on a 10-race card and has a post time of 5:50 p.m. Eastern. The other stakes are the $150,000 Mohawk; $150,000 Ticonderoga; $125,000 Hudson; $125,000 Iroquois; $100,000 Sleepy Hollow; and $100,000 Maid of the Mist.

Well Fancied is in excellent form and is the likely favorite in the Empire Classic. His chief threats are Gander, who won the Empire Classic in 1999 and 2002, and Traffic Chief, a talented 3-year-old.

Also entered is Private Emblem, the 2002 champion 3-year-old New York-bred; Compelling World and Lord of the Thunder, the runner-up and third-place finishers in last year's Empire Classic; Acceptable Venture, the runner-up in the Albany and Mike Lee; and Spite the Devil, the winner of the Grade 3 Withers. Mr. Determined, a longshot, completes the field.

Well Fancied, a 5-year-old who has won his last three starts at Belmont and carries high weight of 124 pounds, has been holding his form well. In 5 of 6 starts in 2003, Well Fancied earned triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures. He has run almost exclusively in sprints, including his win in the seven-furlong General D. MacArthur on Sept. 5. Well Fancied also proved he could go a longer distance in the 1 1/16-mile Evan Shipman, which he won by 5 1/2 lengths on July 20.

In last year's Showcase Day, Well Fancied won the six-furlong Hudson, but trainer Richard Dutrow decided to shoot for the Empire Classic's bigger purse and longer distance after seeing Well Fancied's performance in the Evan Shipman.

"He's doing very good," Dutrow said. "I have the feeling, if he breaks with the field he'll be in front or very close to the early lead."

Edgar Prado rides Well Fancied from post 4.

Gander has been bothered by soreness in his right stifle for much of the year, but his trainer, John Terranova II, said Gander is fine now. Gander won his last start in a classified allowance race on Sept. 14.

"When the stifle was bothering him, he wasn't [running] his big race," Terranova said. "He's smart and takes care of himself. That's why he has lasted so long."

John Velazquez rides Gander, who drew post 3.

Traffic Chief was impressive in winning the New York Derby and Albany in his last two starts. Trainer Mike Hushion freshened Traffic Chief after the Albany on Aug. 20 with the Empire Classic in mind.

"He needed it; he was a little skinny," Hushion said. "I'm happy with the way he looks now and how he's training."

Hushion said Traffic Chief is most effective when he sets the pace. Richard Migliore rides Traffic Chief from post 8.

Private Emblem is coming off three losses on the turf. Compelling World was no match for Well Fancied in the Evan Shipman and finished second. Acceptable Venture has finished second seven times this year. Spite the Devil hasn't won since the Withers on May 3.