11/24/2003 1:00AM

Strong push for Empire Maker

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NEW YORK - The championship for 2-year-old colt and gelding is wide open this year. The title for turf male is up in the air, too, and the Eclipse Award picture for 3-year-old filly is as clear as mud. But, of all of this year's disputed divisional awards, none stirs the passions of racing people like the battle for champion 3-year-old male between Empire Maker and Funny Cide.

The clear division between the two sides in this debate is reminiscent of the chasm that was between fans of Sunday Silence and supporters of Easy Goer. Those who believe Funny Cide should be champion feel those in the Empire Maker camp are snobbish elitists who ignore certain achievements when it suits their purpose. Supporters of Empire Maker's candidacy for champion 3-year-old, and admittedly I'm among them, think Funny Cide boosters are fools who simply don't know what they are viewing.

The basic facts are as follows: Empire Maker started six times this year, won half of them, and finished second in the other three. All of his victories came in Grade 1 events: the Florida Derby, the Wood Memorial, and the Belmont Stakes. Funny Cide started eight times. He won twice, finished second twice, and was third twice. Funny Cide's two victories, of course, came in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

Empire Maker and Funny Cide met three times. Empire Maker defeated Funny Cide by a half-length in their first meeting, the Wood Memorial. Funny Cide beat Empire Maker by 1 3/4 lengths when they next met in the Kentucky Derby. In their final head-to-head battle, Empire Maker left Funny Cide five lengths back in third in the Belmont.

Those are the facts. The next thing to do is to interpret them as objectively as possible. Empire Maker won in March, he won in April, and he won in June. Funny Cide's two wins came over a two-week period in early May. In Empire Maker's only start after his last victory, he was beaten a neck finishing second in the Jim Dandy. Funny Cide made three starts after his last victory. As noted, he was beaten five lengths when third in the Belmont. Funny Cide then was third, beaten nine lengths, in the Haskell Invitational, and ninth, beaten 14 1/2 lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Classic. All of this suggests Empire Maker held top form longer than Funny Cide did.

Of course, none of the above took place in a vacuum, and it is important to consider other factors. For example, it was well documented that Empire Maker missed several days of training in the days just before the Kentucky Derby because of a foot problem that nearly forced his withdrawal from that race. It is unrealistic to expect an athlete to perform at his best in the biggest test of his career if he has missed valuable training right before the big event. Under the circumstances, it was very much to Empire Maker's credit that he was able to get within less than two lengths of victory in the Derby.

Funny Cide's backers would counter with the argument that their gelding was compromised by miserable weather and a sloppy track when denied in his attempt to complete the Triple Crown in the Belmont. Perhaps. But that argument is weak, considering that in his other two starts on a wet track, Funny Cide came within a half-length of Empire Maker when second in the Wood Memorial, and he won the Preakness.

One matter that has absolutely no place in an intelligent discussion of this topic is Empire Maker's absence from the Preakness Stakes. Once Empire Maker lost the Kentucky Derby and had no shot at the Triple Crown, he was under no obligation to run in the Preakness. At that point, Empire Maker's job was to win races, and if the best way for him to win a race like the Belmont was by being fresh, then that was perfectly within his rights.

Besides, supporters of Funny Cide would do best by glossing over the Preakness, because that raises the issue of the quality of the race, a subject that does merit inclusion in this debate. This year's Preakness rivaled the 2000 Belmont Stakes won by Commendable as the weakest Triple Crown event in modern history. I wrote at the time that Funny Cide's lengthy victory was purely a function of the weak field and Peace Rules running an uncharacteristically poor race. Subsequent events have proven that out. Preakness runner-up Midway Road was beaten almost six lengths finishing third in the Ohio Derby, his only subsequent start. Scrimshaw, who finished third in the Preakness, came back to be beaten 30 lengths finishing sixth in the Belmont, slightly more than nine lengths finishing sixth in the Amsterdam, and a bit more than 11 lengths finishing 10th in the King's Bishop. And, the Preakness was the only time Peace Rules failed to earn a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure on dirt.

The "X-factor" here is of the 16 horses who, like Funny Cide, were denied the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes, 12 went on to become champion 3-year-old. This is important, especially this year, with the change in Eclipse Award voting procedure and with the likelihood that the premature retirement of Empire Maker will create a backlash. Nevertheless, the evidence says the contest between Empire Maker and Funny Cide shouldn't be as close as it appears to be. Empire Maker was the better horse, and he should be champion.