06/04/2003 11:00PM

Expect to see the real Empire Maker

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The first time I attended a Belmont Stakes was 25 years ago, when I rode the train to Belmont and stood in the crowd, jumping up to catch glimpses of Affirmed and Alydar slugging it out down the stretch. I was rooting for Alydar, and when Affirmed won the race and the Triple Crown, the history of the moment was lost on me.

It was the third time in six years the Crown had been won. Big deal. Who would have imagined that 25 years later, we would still be waiting for the next one?

Saturday, Funny Cide will try to end that drought, and he is in better position to do it than most of the eight Derby-Preakness winners who have failed since then. He only has five horses to beat, and not one of last year's top 2-year-olds is among them. He has tactical speed, but he's not a one-dimensional front-runner like War Emblem. Perhaps most important, he's the first bidder since Pleasant Colony in 1981 who has been based at Belmont Park, where the unique layout and surface make home court a true advantage.

There is plenty to like about him on and off the track. He is an unusually likeable racehorse, given his relatively humble origins as a New York-bred gelding, his less than regal pedigree and ownership group, and the appeal of a trainer and jockey enjoying this run in the latter years of their careers. He is 1 1/2 miles from becoming a genuine folk hero.

Having said all that, I am picking against him for two reasons.

The first is Empire Maker, who simply looked like a better horse beating him in the Wood Memorial and may well thrive at 1 1/2 miles. I just don't believe that was the real Empire Maker we saw losing the Kentucky Derby. He was running with a bruised foot and down the stretch he lacked both the kick and the resolve he had shown winning the Florida Derby and Wood.

This Triple Crown finale is in some ways reminiscent of the 1989 showdown between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. The parallels are imperfect, and neither one of these horses has yet done anything to suggest he is as good as those two Hall of Famers. Still, Easy Goer's Derby was a lot like Empire Maker's: He made a run and loomed large but was life and death just to beat an inferior stablemate (Awe Inspiring then, Peace Rules now) for second.

Like Empire Maker, Easy Goer finished second in the Derby on class alone and without firing his best shot. That shot came in the Belmont, and Empire Maker could be poised for a similar performance.

The other reason I feel compelled to pick against Funny Cide is that for all his admirable qualities and likability, he seems to stand outside the circle of greatness that characterized the only three horses to have won a crown in the last 50 years. The game has changed since the days of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, but I still want the next Triple Crown winner to be a champion at 2 rather than a winner of three restricted statebred races.

Coming into the Belmont, Seattle Slew was undefeated and Affirmed had never lost to anyone but Alydar. Funny Cide has already finished behind Offlee Wild, Powerful Touch, Bham, Supervisor, Peace Rules, Kafwain, and, of course, Empire Maker.

It's hard to argue that Funny Cide belongs alongside Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed more than he fits with Pleasant Colony, Real Quiet, Charismatic, and War Emblem. It's far from clear he's as good as Alysheba, Sunday Silence, or Silver Charm, much less Spectacular Bid.

If he does win the Belmont and the Crown, here's hoping that he does it by winning a truly great race - that the real Empire Maker shows up, that Dynever is as good against top horses as he has looked against lesser ones, that Ten Most Wanted's Illinois Derby was more than an optical illusion. If all that happens and Funny Cide can win, his achievement will be as worthy as it is rare.