07/31/2003 11:00PM

Travers buildup begins now


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - They're back.

Empire Maker and Funny Cide return to the races Sunday for the first time since the Belmont Stakes June 7 in separate preps for their rematch in the Travers 20 days later. If screenwriters could script the outcome, Empire Maker would romp in Saratoga's Jim Dandy, Funny Cide would blow away the field in Monmouth's Haskell, both would run identically stratospheric Beyer Speed Figures, and the world would spend the next three weeks debating their showdown.

Such a neatly cinematic ending to the weekend, however, is unlikely, real life and real racing being more subtle and complicated than the movies. The two star 3-year-olds have milder agendas Sunday that do not necessarily include firing their best shots.

Empire Maker appears to be in the easier spot, though this Jim Dandy field is a lot better than the one that Medaglia d'Oro thrashed a year ago. Swaps winner During and Dwyer winner Strong Hope are both dangerous front-runners looking to steal a $500,000 pot if the Belmont winner is less than ready, but they may cancel each other out on the front end. Empire Maker is supposed to outfinish the others even if he's only 90 percent. Perhaps the only scenario for his defeat is a paceless race if just one of the front-runners fires, which might leave the favorite with too much to do at the end.

Funny Cide faces a different situation that may prove more revealing. He is surrounded by speed and meets two Grade 1 winners in Peace Rules and Sky Mesa. The interesting thing to see will be how well Funny Cide can rate comfortably in such a situation, not just in terms of how the Haskell comes out but also as a suggestion of how he will fare against top company going forward.

Funny Cide won the Derby and Preakness from just off the pace, receiving ideal set ups both times. He of course ran well and has the talent to make his own luck, but both races ultimately fell into his lap. Then in the Belmont, he seemed anxious if not literally rank, unable to relax and conserve anything for the challenges that were sure to come.

If Funny Cide is going to be a serious threat not only to Empire Maker in the Travers but also to Mineshaft, Medaglia d'Oro, Perfect Drift, and Congaree this fall, he needs to demonstrate real tractability. That may be the most important thing to look for in the Haskell, even more than whether he wins the race.

We know what we're getting with Empire Maker after Sunday: two or three more starts, then a lucrative retirement to stud. He's the clear early favorite for the Breeders' Cup Classic, 7-2 in last weekend's futures betting with Funny Cide the sixth choice at 12-1.

Funny Cide's future is both more interesting and less proscribed. Maybe he matures and relaxes and makes a career of contesting the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Classic every year, but he also could turn out to be a dominant off-the-pace sprinter/miler who tries to win the Met and the Cigar Mile next season.

Sky Mesa has been overlooked as a real possibility to emerge as a significant force the second half of the season. His comeback third in the Dwyer, a very ambitious spot off an eight-month layoff, showed he has both recovered fully from his problems and improved from 2 to 3. He figures to run well in the Haskell and if he does, he could be even stronger third time back in the Travers.

It's going to be fascinating to see how the Travers is bet if Empire Maker and Funny Cide both run well Sunday. In the Belmont, Funny Cide was even-money, Empire Maker 2-1. The Belmont outcome would suggest a reversal of those prices, but Empire Maker's backers may be less likely to unload at a shorter price and Funny Cide's hometown support will be substantial.

Their rivalry may transcend disciplined value-seeking. Most people have married themselves to one horse or the other, the way they did with Affirmed and Alydar or Easy Goer and Sunday Silence, and are unlikely to switch sides based on price. Either you believe that Funny Cide is the deserving winner of two-thirds of the Triple Crown, due extra credit for dancing all three dances, and was beaten in the Belmont only by the distance and the sloppy track; or you believe that Empire Maker was the better horse all along, compromised by a bruised foot in the Derby and, after all, a winner of two of his three meetings with Funny Cide.

So it may well be that no matter what happens Sunday, people already know who they're backing in the Travers. It may not be the savviest way to play the races in general, but a few times a year it's forgivable to let loyalty prevail.