08/03/2003 11:00PM

Funny Cide fires dud


NEW YORK - We have to remember that Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park and Jim Dandy at Saratoga, although lucrative and important races in their own right, are mainly vehicles to move their participants forward to the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 23.

That said, the Haskell and Jim Dandy still spoke volumes about the leadership of the 3-year-old division.

In the Haskell, we learned that no amount of branding of beer, wine, T-shirts, posters, pins, and whatever else you can think of can make an overachieving 3-year-old develop further than he is capable of. Funny Cide deserves every ounce of credit for upsetting the Kentucky Derby and winning the Preakness Stakes. But, despite every excuse you can think of, from a fast workout to a sloppy racetrack, Funny Cide simply was not good enough when he lost to Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted in the Belmont Stakes in his failed attempt at the Triple Crown.

Maybe we have already seen the best of Funny Cide. Certainly, his performance in the Haskell, a distant third-place finish after never, even for one step, looking merely like a threat, did nothing to dispel that suspicion.

No one wants to hear that Funny Cide didn't handle the track. He won first time out at Belmont Park, he ran well first time out at Fair Grounds. He ran well first time out at Aqueduct, he won first time out at Churchill Downs, and he won first time out at Pimlico. Funny Cide has never had to carry his track with him, and he won't be allowed to start doing that now. He was simply badly outrun at Monmouth in the Haskell by Peace Rules, who made all the running in an emphatic victory, and by Sky Mesa, who ran a terrific and much-improved race second start off a layoff.

As for the Jim Dandy, it was proof that just when you want to start loving Empire Maker as a racehorse, he gives you reason yet again to thoroughly distrust him. Taking nothing away from the gutsy Jim Dandy upsetter Strong Hope, who also led all the way while going a nine-furlong distance that really looked beyond his best, Empire Maker just gave this race away. As far back as he was going down the backstretch, he had every chance to catch Strong Hope through the stretch, and didn't. When Jerry Bailey hit him right handed, Empire Maker drifted in. When Bailey hit him left handed, Empire Maker lugged out. As talented as he is, and Empire Maker is immensely talented, he is compromised by a common streak.

Imagine what kind of horse you would have combining Empire Maker's talent with Funny Cide's desire. That would be some 3-year-old. But, while others debate what the losses of these two Sunday mean to the implications of their scheduled meeting in the Travers, I am looking farther down the road at how these 3-year-olds may stack up against the top older horses. And, the picture doesn't look pretty after the professionalism displayed in Saturday's Whitney Handicap at Saratoga.

In the Whitney, Bobby Frankel, the trainer of both Empire Maker and Peace Rules, solidified his status as the best layoff trainer in the business through Medaglia d'Oro's victory. While the rest of the mere mortals who train racehorses would reach a goal like the Whitney after one or two prep races, Frankel had Medaglia d'Oro ready for one of his best performances following a four-month layoff.

Make no mistake, the Whitney was one of the best races Medaglia d'Oro has ever run, as good if not better than his fast wins in last year's Jim Dandy or in the Strub early this year, or his victory in last summer's Travers. For one, he beat a razor-sharp opponent in Volponi, who only four weeks earlier ran about as good as he can finishing second to the brilliant Mineshaft in the Suburban. And don't forget, Volponi at his best is very formidable, good enough, in fact, to have won last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic by 6 1/2 lengths over Medaglia d'Oro.

But for me, the biggest reason why this was Medaglia d'Oro at the peak of his powers is because he ran the way he did after being denied the early lead. If you look back at Medaglia d'Oro's five previous stakes victories, four of them were achieved after he had control of the early lead. The only exception was his Travers score, in which he prevailed by a half-length at 3-5 over Repent, who went into that race following an absence of more than four months. Medaglia d'Oro conceded the early lead in last year's Belmont Stakes, and though he ran very well to finish a close second, he lost to Sarava, who pulled off the biggest upset in the history of the Belmont Stakes, which happens to be the oldest leg of the Triple Crown. He also sat off the lead in the Breeders' Cup Classic, which he lost as the 5-2 favorite.

In other words, Medaglia d'Oro had seemed to be not quite as effective prompting or stalking early as he had been leading early. Seemed to be, but not anymore. That's a scary thought for whomever he faces down the road, and an entertaining thought for the rest of us.