Updated on 09/17/2011 11:07AM

Empire Maker comes up short


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Strong Hope announced his presence as a factor in the 3-year-old division Sunday by taking command entering the first turn and holding off a hard-charging Empire Maker at the wire to win the Grade 2, $500,000 Jim Dandy by a neck at Saratoga.

It was 2 1-2 lengths back to Congrats in third. Tafaseel, Nacheezmo and During completed the order of finish before an announced crowd of 65,346 on T-Shirt Day at Saratoga.

It was the fifth consecutive victory for Strong Hope, a $1.7 million son of Grand Slam owned by Eugene and Laura Melnyk, and it punched his ticket to the $1 million Travers Stakes here on Aug. 23.

The loss was a stunner to those who made Empire Maker, the Belmont Stakes winner, the 3-10 favorite in the field of six.

Breaking from the rail under John Velazquez, Strong Hope out-footed During and Tafaseel to the lead and ran an opening quarter in 23.66 seconds. When Strong Hope opened a 1 1-2-length lead while getting an opening half-mile in 47.17 seconds, trainer Todd Pletcher was encouraged.

"I was hoping for 47, I didn't think we'd get much less than that," said Pletcher, who won his third stakes and 13th race overall at this 11-day old meet. "I thought two turns would slow him down a little bit. We talked about that after the Dwyer, and it seemed to work out."

Meanwhile, Jerry Bailey had Empire Maker in fifth position and three wide while seven lengths off the pace after the opening half. Around the turn, Tafaseel made a run at Strong Hope, but Strong Hoped turned that challenge aside and was clear turning for home.

Bailey launched a three-wide bid aboard Empire Maker around the turn and into the stretch and set sail after Strong Hope, who had a two-length lead at the eighth pole. Empire Maker ran evenly from the eighth pole to the sixteenth pole, but suddenly kicked in the last sixteenth, but could not get up. Strong Hope covered the nine furlongs in 1:48.10 and returned $15,40 as the second choice.

"Empire Maker is revving big time, he's got the length of the stretch to get by him," Pletcher said. "I knew it was going to be close. We kicked off the turn a couple of lengths and I thought we had a big chance, but you got to think Empire Maker's best furlong is going to be his last. Our horse keeps holding on."

Bailey said the lost ground probably cost him the race.

"Do I think losing ground made a difference?" Bailey said. "Anytime you get beat less than a half-length it makes a difference."

Bobby Frankel, the trainer of Empire Maker who watched the race from the Saratoga racing office, did not seem all that upset especially after Peace Rules, whom he also trains, won the $1 million Haskell at Monmouth 20 minutes later.

"I didn't feel that bad about Empire Maker," Frankel said. "I though he ran a winning race, he gave up a lot of ground. Empire Maker seemed to run in spots. It looked he was going to be third then he took off the last sixteenth. It should set him up for the Travers really well."