08/24/2003 11:00PM

Frankel lost, but 'Empire' won

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NEW YORK - Into each life some rain must fall, even Bobby Frankel's. The dominant trainer of 2003 had a rare lost weekend, going 0 for 7 on the Travers Day card and sending out losers in all six of the Grade 1 races he entered at Saratoga and Del Mar. Yet while Wild Spirit, Ghostzapper, Peace Rules, You, Medaglia d'Oro, and Princess Legend all came up short, in Grade 1 races, the most important horse in Frankel's star-studded barn saw his stock rise without leaving his stall.

Ten Most Wanted's victory in what was left of the Travers Stakes after the defections of Funny Cide and Empire Maker was the best thing that could have happened to Empire Maker short of winning the race.

The Travers was an opportunity for Strong Hope or Sky Mesa to join the battle for the 3-year-old championship, but their respective 14 1/2-length and 20 1/2-length defeats foiled those prospects. Meanwhile, Ten Most Wanted is a colt that Empire Maker has beaten in all three of their meetings this year - when they ran second and fourth in the Sham, second and ninth in the Kentucky Derby, and, most importantly, first and second in the Belmont.

This Travers almost had to be won from off the pace, with Peace Rules and Strong Hope being virtually unrateable colts committed to the lead. Of their four opponents, Congrats and Wild and Wicked turned out not to be good enough, and Sky Mesa came apart with a poor effort. All that Ten Most Wanted had to do was run his "A" race, as he did in the Illinois Derby and Belmont but not in the Derby or Swaps - and he did, cruising by the tired but gutsy Peace Rules after a mile in 1:35.46 and widening his margin despite an uninspiring final quarter in 26.68.

It's hard not to imagine a healthy Empire Maker finishing more strongly and winning the race, but we won't see him until the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27. As for Funny Cide, it seems like even money that he won't race again this year, and if he does, he is as likely to run in the Empire Classic for statebreds at Belmont on Oct. 18 as in the Breeders' Cup Classic seven days later.

Frankel's drought was the talk of Saratoga, with many horseplayers congratulating themselves for picking up on his cold streak as early as Friday's shocking defeat of Wild Spirit in the Personal Ensign. Betting against his seven runners Saturday, all first or second choices, was indeed a good move, but it's not as if they all disgraced themselves.

Peace Rules ran as well as a horse could after battling a 1:09.98 Travers pace, Ghostzapper was flying while beaten two necks making his stakes debut in the King's Bishop, and Special Rate did nothing wrong running second to Pretty Wild in the latter's blazing season debut (seven furlongs in 1:21.50, as opposed to a 1:22.14 clocking for the King's Bishop). Still, the dismal performances of Sea of Showers in the Ballston Spa and War Zone in the Fourstardave suggested that Empire Maker may not have been the barn's only occupant at less than his best.

Frankel still has plenty of time and plenty of ammunition to win at least four more Grade 1 races this year, which would equal D. Wayne Lukas's record of 22, but the Gold Cup may matter more than all of them. Empire Maker needs to win that race or the Classic; otherwise he'll merely be a 3-year-old who didn't win after the second Saturday in June. He'll also be in serious danger of losing the 3-year-old title to Funny Cide on a sentimental vote despite a 2-1 edge in head-to-head meetings. The Gold Cup looms a much easier race than the Classic, where the potential field includes Mineshaft, Candy Ride, and Medaglia d'Oro, who to date are simply faster than the 3-year-olds.

Travers Day blew a hole in the theory that it takes marquee horses or free wall clocks to attract a crowd. Despite the weeklong waffling and ultimate defections of the Triple Crown stars, Saratoga attracted a record Travers crowd of 66,122 and handled a record $41 million. Credit a break in the weather from the sweltering 90's to the delightful 70's for the former, and a truly outstanding supporting card for the latter. Despite the lack of any household names, an all-graded-stakes pick four of the Ballston Spa, Fourstardave, King's Bishop, and Travers alone attracted $1.4 million, a record for a North American pick four, thanks to competitive and mostly full fields.

We keep hearing that racing needs a savior 3-year-old superhorse, but the game looked awfully healthy Saturday at Saratoga with its two closest things on the bench.