08/19/2003 11:00PM

Figures point to Empire Maker


Let's hope the Travers colts make a bigger Beyer Speed Figure impression than the Alabama fillies.

For the second straight year the Alabama's speed figure was distinctly underwhelming. In 2002, it was Farda Amiga catching an ordinary group with a 100 Beyer. In 2003, it was Island Fashion winning easily with a figure of only 101. That's well below the previous average of 105 for the Alabama runnings since 1990, and light years from Silverbulletday's spectacular 115 in 1999, or Go for Wand (1990) and Heavenly Prize (1994), who each posted 111.

Except for Island Fashion, nobody else ran at all in this year's Alabama. Perhaps Bird Town didn't like the distance, but distance alone could not excuse such a poor performance. And Spoken Fur's mediocre effort should not have been a surprise to anyone who looks at Beyer Figures. Her winning figure in the Coaching Club American Oaks - an extremely slow 88 - should have given pause to anyone considering this horse at absurdly low odds of 4-5. Perhaps you could make some excuse for that horrible figure because of the 1 1/2-mile distance of the CCA Oaks, and you had to consider that Grade 1 master Bobby Frankel was her trainer. But those who believe the "figs don't lie," had to be very skeptical.

The colts in this year's Travers should do a lot better than last week's Alabama bunch. Funny Cide or no Funny Cide, this Saturday's Travers has tremendous appeal. And it should crown this year's 3-year-old champion. Here's the field:

Funny Cide: Entered, but most likely he will not run. If he does, you have to leave him out of any wagers. At less than 100 percent he will not be able to cope with this high-caliber field.

Wild and Wicked: A very nice horse, no doubt. But his Beyer figures are simply not competitive. His steady line of 98-101-101-95 shows no indication that he can reach above 110, which will very likely be needed to win here. He couldn't even hold off the ailing Funny Cide in the Haskell, and finished fourth, 10 lengths behind Peace Rules.

Strong Hope: He's the key horse in this year's Travers. If he is overbet, there could be at least a bit of value in this race. I didn't like him in this year's Jim Dandy. He had improved dramatically with Beyers of 95-97-100-110 coming up to that race, but looked like he could very well take a step backward. But, he was able to roll along on an uncontested lead and wired the field, benefiting from jockey Jerry Bailey's very poor pace judgment aboard Empire Maker. Under these optimal conditions, he was able to repeat his peak Beyer of 110. So, in this year's Travers he's even more likely to bounce following back-to-back all-out efforts. Of course, it's a small field, without much pace, and Strong Hope has the magic of trainer Todd Pletcher behind him - and Pletcher is the hottest trainer ever in Saratoga's long history. Still, you have to throw him out. Surely the other riders will not allow Strong Hope to waltz away and lead from wire to wire in such an important race. Or will they?

Ten Most Wanted: He ran against a strong rail bias at Hollywood Park on July 13 last time out, when he couldn't catch pacesetter During in the Swaps. But, just as in the case of Spoken Fur, the 96 Beyer he earned in that race has to be worrisome. Even if you excuse his race on the basis of a very tough trip, you have to wonder which Ten Most Wanted will show up on Saturday. Will it be the horse who can run 110 and 109 Beyers, or the one who ran a non-threatening 98 in the Kentucky Derby and a 96 at Hollywood? He's certainly capable of being a strong threat, but he's just not reliable enough.

Sky Mesa: Under normal conditions you should not look to bet on horses with Sky Mesa's Beyer Figure pattern. Since his long layoff he has improved from 93 to 104 to 108 in his most recent race, a second-place finish to Peace Rules in the Haskell. Can he keep improving? For most horses - especially older runners with many more races under their belts - you would have to be skeptical. But for lightly raced, developing young horses you should be much less willing to project a bounce. None of his races this year have been particularly stressful in terms of trips, and he could still have some improvement to make. He looks very solid.

Empire Maker: Except for the possibility of a paceless race, everything sets up perfectly for Empire Maker. He ran a 111 in April, won the Belmont with a 110, and came back in the Jim Dandy (where he probably wasn't 100 percent fit) to record another 110 after an impossible trip. The Travers should be his breakthrough race. He should be able to run a Beyer of at least 113 - and nobody else in this race appears ready for that kind of effort at this point in the year.

Also entered were Congrats and Peace Rules, who was entered by Frankel in the event that Empire Maker - reported at the draw to have a cough - is scratched. Trainer Shug McGaughey said Congrats will run only if Empire Maker doesn't.

Assuming he is healthy, Empire Maker should certainly top the average Beyer of 110.6 for recent runnings of the Travers. He might not reach Point Given's high-water mark of 117, but he should be able to threaten Holy Bull's 115 in 1994 or Will's Way's 114 in 1996 - or the 114 turned in by Soto and Dynever in the recent West Virginia Derby. That should give him a clear victory, with Sky Mesa filling out an exacta that I hope will not be too parimutuelly unappetizing.