05/20/2003 11:00PM

Spoilers with Belmont bloodlines

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LAS VEGAS - Funny Cide's lopsided 9 3/4-length victory in the Preakness Stakes following his solid score in the Kentucky Derby has convinced many that he will be the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. The Preakness confirmed his high quality and catapulted him to the head of his class - for now.

Funny Cide was impressive in victory, but it must be clearly noted that he did not have any competition in the Preakness. Peace Rules was a spent racehorse after a hard race in the Derby, and the remainder of the field was made up of some promising, late-maturing runners and allowance horses. In a three-horse battle for second place, the up-and-coming Midway Road edged away from a game Scrimshaw, with Peace Rules fourth.

Funny Cide's time of 1:55.61 fits well with past Preakness winners, but his margin of victory suggests that Midway Road, Scrimshaw, and Peace Rules ran the 1 3/16 miles in something like 1:57.31, quite pedestrian for the Preakness.

Funny Cide will have no such walkover in the Belmont Stakes. Waiting in the wings are four horses who have the talent and pedigree to severely challenge Funny Cide at 1 1/2 miles. This is not to say Funny Cide is not a legitimate favorite. He has proven to be a colt of considerable quality, and while he appears capable of getting 1 1/2 miles, a coronation may be a bit premature.

Empire Maker, Dynever, Atswhatimtalkn-bout, and Ten Most Wanted are much more formidable opponents than Midway Road, Scrimshaw, and Peace Rules.

The big question is Empire Maker's hoof. A healthy Empire Maker, with a beneficial five-week freshening, will be a major player in the Belmont. Second in the Derby, Empire Maker defeated Funny Cide in the Wood Memorial, and the Belmont will be their rubber match. There is little doubt that Empire Maker will be at his best at 1 1/2 miles, and if he trains up to the Belmont in good form, a Triple Crown winner is unlikely.

The late-developing Dynever has been the most exciting 3-year-old who did not compete in the Derby or Preakness. By Dynaformer, a stamina influence, Dynever has looked dominant in his last three races, including victories in the Aventura Stakes and Lone Star Derby. The Belmont will be his first attempt against the best of his generation, and he is the X-factor in the race. On paper and by performance, he is a genuine threat in the Belmont and has many already in his corner.

Aside from Empire Maker, Ten Most Wanted was the most hyped horse in the Derby, but he was bumped and came out of the race with a sore back. Like many 3-year-olds who come to hand quickly in the spring, Ten Most Wanted blossomed in April, winning the Illinois Derby with authority for respected horseman Wally Dollase. Ten Most Wanted is from the first crop of Deputy Commander, who also matured into a multiple Grade 1 winner in the summer of his 3-year-old year, winning the Travers Stakes and Super Derby, both at 1 1/4 miles. Ten Most Wanted gets additional stamina from his broodmare sire, Criminal Type, and he traces in direct tail-female lineage to La Troienne, the greatest influence of stakes winners in the history of the breed.

Atswhatimtalknbout also has the credentials to be the spoiler in the Belmont. By Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup Classic winner A.P. Indy out of a Red Ransom mare, he is bred to run all day. Despite a troubled trip in the Kentucky Derby, Atswhatimtalknbout finished a fast-closing fourth, a nose behind Peace Rules. Past the finish line, Atswhatimtalknbout flew by Empire Maker, and the five weeks between the Derby and Belmont should also be a great benefit for a colt who did not race at 2.

If Funny Cide wins the Belmont, he will become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, since Affirmed defeated his arch-rival, Alydar. When Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, it was also after a long drought - 25 years since Citation's 1948 Triple Crown.

History confirms that the Belmont Stakes is the hardest of all the Triple Crown races to win. This year, with a considerable array of talent poised to be most effective at 1 1/2 miles, the Belmont will truly be worthy of its moniker, the test of the champion.