06/17/2003 11:00PM

Top 3-year-old? Don't know yet


PHILADELPHIA - In mid-March, a few days before the Florida Derby, a very sharp friend of mine told me that Empire Maker was going to explode that Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Remember this was before the horse had hit 100 on the Beyer scale.

At that point, Empire Maker was all hype and no performance. The colt was 1 for 3. His Beyers were moving in the right direction, but there was nothing to suggest dramatic improvement.

So what happened? Empire Maker got blinkers and ran off with the Florida Derby, earning a 108 Beyer.

I said I would protect my friend's identity if he happened to be wrong. Well, he wasn't wrong.

Empire Maker was as good as he said. The colt did not win the Kentucky Derby, but, clearly, there were extenuating circumstances.

My friend was certain Empire Maker was going to win the Derby, but he could not have anticipated what went down Derby week.

As far as the Preakness went, even my friend admits Empire Maker would have been hard pressed to beat Funny Cide's 114 Beyer.

The Belmont Stakes proved once and for all that Empire Maker is a top-class horse. He won with my favorite double move. He stalked a proven talent in Funny Cide, got away from him, took a late challenge from another proven talent in Ten Most Wanted (anybody still wondering if that 110 Beyer in the Illinois Derby was legit?) and showed great competitiveness in the final 100 yards.

That sharp man, it can now be told, is Mark Reid, the same man who has bought several stars for the Bobby Frankel stable, including Medaglia d'Oro, You, and Midas Eyes.

Reid believed in Frankel. He also believed in the bloodlines.

However, I am not yet convinced Empire Maker is better than Funny Cide. I want to see more.

Just as there was a rush to judgment for Funny Cide after he dominated the Preakness, there is certain to be a rush to judgment for Empire Maker now.

What the Triple Crown demonstrated is that both horses are top class and extremely consistent. There clearly is room for major Beyer improvement in both. And do not forget Ten Most Wanted. That colt, too, belongs in the equation as we head for the second half of the season.

I would not be shocked to see this group of 3-year-olds get near the 120 Beyer range by October. Or sooner.

Assuming they all stay healthy and appear at Saratoga for the Travers Stakes, tactics may decide that race and subsequent meetings. And if I've learned anything about this game, it is this: When horses are really closely matched, the horse with the best speed usually wins.

To me, Funny Cide is that horse.

The Derby winner has gotten first run on Empire Maker three times. Empire Maker was better in the Wood Memorial and clearly better in the Belmont.

I doubt Funny Cide was at his absolute best in either race. In the Wood, Funny Cide was just beginning to rediscover the great form he had shown in the first two races of his career. The Belmont was at the end of a grueling five-week Triple Crown grind.

Funny Cide was clearly better in the Derby. I am certain Empire Maker was not at his best that day.

So, let's see more. The Triple Crown was wonderful. It was not conclusive.