06/10/2003 11:00PM

In hindsight, easy pickens

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BOSTON - The Beyer Speed Figures dominated this year's Triple Crown. Unfortunately, as with too many key insights in handicapping, I didn't fully appreciate the obvious until a few hours after it was all over.

In terms of the Beyer Figures, this year's Derby preps produced three horses who stood out from the crowd. Empire Maker earned Beyers of 108 and 111 before the Derby. Ten Most Wanted ran a figure of 110 in the Illinois Derby. Funny Cide also earned a 110 in the Wood Memorial.

A few other challengers - Atswhatimtalknbout, Buddy Gil, Peace Rules - had recorded Beyers five or six points below the top three, but they all seemed to have peaked at that lower level and then regressed.

It seemed clear that one of the top three would win the Derby. Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted were the most logical candidates to repeat a Beyer in the 110 range. They had earned their big Beyers with less draining efforts than had Funny Cide, so of the three, Funny Cide was the most likely to bounce in the Kentucky Derby. I picked Ten Most Wanted, and so, along with a bandwagonload of other so-called wise guys, I ended up backing the only one of the three who didn't run at all in the Derby.

As it turned out, all three horses actually ran worse at Churchill Downs - Ten Most Wanted because of an apparent back injury suffered at the start of the Derby; Empire Maker because of a slight hoof bruise that interrupted his training schedule and an overconfident wide ride by jockey Jerry Bailey; and Funny Cide because, despite an absolutely ideal trip, his Beyer Figure actually declined slightly from the Wood.

Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted needed time to recover from their injuries and passed up the Preakness. So, out of the big-Beyer three, only Funny Cide showed up at Pimlico. Since he was coming off a perfect trip in the Derby, I couldn't pick him in the Preakness. But the field turned out to be extremely weak, with only Peace Rules as a realistic threat. You could hardly work up much enthusiasm for Peace Rules because his Beyer Figures of 105-104-105, while they showed remarkable consistency, offered little promise of any impending upward move. It turned out that Peace Rules was a spent force, and when he threw in the towel late on the far turn, it allowed Funny Cide to run away and hide, running solo against the clock. Under these ideal circumstances Funny Cide looked impressive indeed, earning a Beyer of 114.

The Big Three all showed up for the final leg of the Triple Crown. Once again, you had to be skeptical of Funny Cide. He had now benefited from two perfect trips in a row, and the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont looked like it might be beyond his best range. Historically, there's a consistent trend for big Preakness numbers to decline (often sharply) in the Belmont. But even if you assumed that Funny Cide's Beyer would drop somewhat, who could move up and make up the gap?

Supervisor was preposterous. Scrimshaw looked extremely unlikely. Dynever had shown enormous promise, but his highest Beyer was only 101. Ten Most Wanted certainly was capable, as his 110 in the Illinois Derby demonstrated. But that was his only big Beyer, and he would likely have to repeat that isolated effort in order to challenge in the Belmont.

That left the most logical horse, Empire Maker. Bred for the distance, trained by the hottest stakes trainer in the world, fully recovered from his hoof problems, with a convincing win over Funny Cide in the Wood, and already with Beyers of 108 and 111 - Empire Maker seemed to fit the bill. Aided by a brilliantly executed ride by Jerry Bailey, and some misjudgment by jockey Jose Santos trying to rein in an over-eager Funny Cide, Empire Maker rained on the Seabiscuit II celebration. Ten Most Wanted ran on gamely for second. Funny Cide held well enough for third. The Big Three finished one-two-three.

So the top three Beyers from the pre-Derby preps had swept through the Triple Crown. The Big Three had accounted for the exacta in the Derby, the winner in the Preakness, and the trifecta in the Belmont. Only Ten Most Wanted in the Derby failed to live up to expectations. Empire Maker moved back up to a 110 in the Belmont, Ten Most Wanted earned a 109, and Funny Cide ran a 104.

Fans of Funny Cide can certainly take solace in his Belmont effort. He raced at a distance that probably is not his best, on a rail that might have been a bit deep, and was slightly rank on a track that he might not have liked - and still hung on to earn a respectable Beyer of 104. Not a bad performance at all.

With the big-Beyer trio all headed for Saratoga, and with the possible addition of Atswhatimtalknbout, Dynever, and some later-bloomers - the Travers could truly be a race to remember.