08/04/2003 12:00AM

So much for Travers ballyhoo


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The jokes were flowing as freely as the cocktails and lies in Saratoga Sunday night after the dual defeats of Empire Maker in the Jim Dandy and Funny Cide in the Haskell. Wags wondered whether there might be a 50-percent-off sale at the new Funny Cide Store in downtown Saratoga Springs and whether Travers Day box seats might come down from $1,000 to $100 on eBay.

A showdown between the Jim Dandy runner-up and the third-place finisher in the Haskell was not what Saratoga officials had in mind when they began saying after the Belmont Stakes that this year's Travers would be the most dramatic and eagerly anticipated renewal since Affirmed and Alydar met 25 years ago. The expectation was that Empire Maker and Funny Cide would easily win their preps for the showdown. After all, in their lone starts between the 1978 Belmont and Travers, Alydar came back with a 10-length romp over Buckaroo in the Whitney and Affirmed made up an impossible gap to run down Sensitive Prince in the Jim Dandy.

The analogy was always a stretch. Empire Maker and Funny Cide are not Affirmed and Alydar, or even Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, truly great 3-year-olds who had no peers but each other. Neither of this year's stars has run a dazzling race against the clock or overcome significant adversity. Right now, it's hard to like their chances against their elders this fall.

The morning after, trainer Bobby Frankel didn't sound crestfallen about losing the Jim Dandy by a neck to Strong Hope. It's hard to be too down after winning the weekend's two Grade 1 stakes, the Whitney with Medaglia d'Oro and the Haskell with Peace Rules, and Empire Maker still stands atop his division and is the horse to beat in the Travers. It looked like the colt got going a little bit too late behind a pace that was slower and less contested than anyone expected, and he should only improve with the race under his girth and an extra furlong in the Travers.

Still, a slightly better colt would have run down Strong Hope and won this Jim Dandy. Affirmed did beat Sensitive Prince. Empire Maker is an impressive sight when he launches his rally, picking off horses as if they're standing still, but he also ran only in spots down the stretch and did not really sustain his run.

Funny Cide's performance was far more worrisome because the popular gelding was flat at every stage of the race. Had he shown his usual early speed and been caught late, or made up significant ground down the stretch, you could at least say he wasn't fully cranked for the race and is heading in the right direction. Instead, he was outrun early, outrun late and simply looked like an overmatched longshot. He did come out the race with sand in his eye and was running a temperature Monday morning, so perhaps there's a reason for his utterly dull race.

It's going to be interesting to see how the next three weeks play out for the Derby and Preakness winner. His Haskell performance was unlikely to make Barclay Tagg salivate at the prospect of a 10-furlong race against Empire Maker 20 days hence, but the owners are upstate New Yorkers who probably want to win the Travers more than any other race on the planet. There could be some lively discussions ahead.

There was a lot of lively discussion surrounding the Whitney, where P.G. Johnson was less than reverential about Medaglia d'Oro and Frankel was similarly unawed by Johnson's Volponi. The two Hall of Fame trainers aired their difference of opinion, and a bit of annoyance with each other, and their exchange was widely depicted as mean-spirited and unfortunate.

The only shame is that there isn't more of this kind of discourse. Horseplayers do it all day long, arguing about who's the right horse and calling their fellow racegoers unflattering names for their unspeakable opinions. Such candor is rare among most horsemen when reporters are nearby, so all that fans usually read is that every trainer is deeply respectful of every opponent and couldn't possibly even identify the horse to beat. It's refreshing to hear some honest and passionate opinions for a change.

Medaglia d'Oro's Whitney triumph was workmanlike rather than eye-popping, but nonetheless impressive because he was coming off a 17-week layoff and beating good horses in Volponi and Evening Attire. His victory sets up a face-off with Mineshaft for leadership of the nation's older horses this fall, a showdown that now looms at least as compelling as the Travers.