06/08/2003 11:00PM

Empire's best is yet to come

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The dream was over but the melody lingered on.

Though Funny Cide was turned back in his bid for the Triple Crown and was strongly supported as the even-money favorite in the Belmont Stakes, the mood in the wake of last Saturday's exciting classic is decidedly upbeat. Almost everyone in the public sector, many beguiled by the homey story of his ownership, and in the professional sector, longing for a Triple Crown winner after 25 years, was distinctly in favor of a coronation at Belmont Park.

It was not to be as Empire Maker showed he was the good horse who had long since earned the confidence of trainer Bobby Frankel. But Funny Cide, undoubtedly feeling the effects of fatigue, went down gallantly, raising the prospects of a renewal of their rivalry later this summer at Saratoga.

When they met in the Kentucky Derby, circumstances favored Funny Cide, who came to his race smoothly and on schedule. Empire Maker, having bruised a foot on an off track, did not get all the training he needed and came up a trifle short. In the Belmont, circumstances favored Empire Maker, who was a relatively fresh horse, having passed the Preakness. He had the training he needed and approached the race smoothly.

Funny Cide, while he won the Preakness by almost 10 lengths, gave an effort at Pimlico that had to cost him something in the way of reserve. He also had a fast work of 57.82 seconds for five furlongs four days prior to the Belmont. Funny Cide often works fast and has won off fast works, but the timing in this instance was probably not helpful.

As the favorite, Funny Cide was rank Saturday and pulled himself to the lead on a track labeled sloppy following day-long showers. Jerry Bailey stalked Funny Cide respectfully, and Empire Maker surged to the front midway on the turn and began to open up. Now there was a challenge from Ten Most Wanted. Ten Most Wanted closed strongly under Pat Day, threatened to catch Funny Cide but couldn't quite do it and had to settle for second.

Empire Maker, with 4 victories, 2 seconds, and a third in 7 starts, has earned $1,885,800. Frankel thinks the best may lie ahead.

"He is a very good horse," Frankel said Sunday morning, "and there is more to come. Much more. He'll have a little time off now and will be pointed for the Jim Dandy and the Travers at Saratoga. We expect to meet Funny Cide again.

"He is a very good horse, too. He ran in the Derby and the Preakness, which is a lot to do, and he won them both. The rivalry between Empire Maker and Funny Cide is exciting."

The Triple Crown has been called racing's most valuable property, and with good reason. More than 100,000 came out to Belmont Park on Saturday in spite of monstrous weather to see the 3-year-olds they had read so much about. The competition proved equally attractive to the television audience, which increased by 13 percent compared to last year.

Will we ever have a Triple Crown winner again? It is one of the most difficult feats in all of sports because it requires so much skill and so much luck. It will happen, and we will enjoy it more because we can appreciate what is involved.