06/04/2003 11:00PM

The trick is keeping focused


ELMONT, N.Y. - Parallel worlds collide on Saturday at Belmont Park, when the razzle-dazzle hype of a potential Triple Crown winner comes face to face with the cold, hard business of preparing immature 3-year-olds for the only mile and a half race they are ever likely to run.

That is why you've got a guy like Bobby Frankel walking around trying to figure out how Empire Maker can possibly lose the Belmont Stakes, while everyone else seems to be praying for Funny Cide's coronation as the people's champion. As a man of conscience and sensitivity, Frankel is sure to feel rotten if he wins. Right, Bobby?

"Oh yeah, terrible," was his reply, only he was smiling as he said it, and standing in front of Empire Maker's stall at Belmont's Barn No. 2.

Frankel's confidence is enough to leave the taste of ashes in the mouths of horse racing boosters, especially since recent heartbreaks have driven the cheerleaders to distraction. The Belmont failures of Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, and finally War Emblem took the wind out of racing's promotional sails, leaving them limp and lifeless.

And for no good reason. It is supposed to be difficult. Funny Cide should be required to run out of his mind. If he loses, there will be no honor lost. If he wins, let the celebration begin.

"He's won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, so he must be a good horse," Frankel said with a matter-of-fact shrug. "If he beats me again in the Belmont, he's a great horse."

That is why they will run the race. Fair warning, though. It needs to be remembered that there have been 16 colts who came to the Belmont on the threshold of a Triple Crown, only to lose, compared with the precious 11 who made the grade. And even though we have a hard time recalling such Triple Crown party poopers as Summing, Pass Catcher, Amberoid, and Sherluck, it usually takes a pretty good horse to win on the first Saturday in June.

If Empire Maker was worried, he was hiding it well. In fact, the colt was pawing at his straw, tossing his handsome head and making an awful fuss.

"Where's his food?" Frankel asked. "Look at him. He wants to be fed, you gotta feed him. He's got his own schedule. In the afternoon, everybody else gets fed at 4, he eats at 3."

"Everyone else" in this particular branch of the Frankel operation includes the likes of stakes stars Aldebaran, Sightseek, Wild Spirit, and You. They munch at hayracks while Empire Maker dives into his grain. Such is the pampered privilege of young genius, even though Empire Maker is still a prodigy without classic portfolio. So far, he has won only the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial. So far.

Shug McGaughey had to deal with the same torments through the spring of 1989 when he and Easy Goer were up against Sunday Silence in the Triple Crown. And just as Frankel has yet to be convinced that Funny Cide is a better horse than Empire Maker (they have split two decisions), McGaughey would not concede anything to Sunday Silence, despite finishing second to the black colt in both the Derby and the Preakness.

"I wasn't really sure what to make of the Derby," McGaughey said. "We'd never run against Sunday Silence before, and I didn't really know what kind of horses he'd been beating. I guess if he'd gone on and beaten us pretty convincingly again in the Preakness I would have thought different. But they ran almost dead even. I figured our colt was at least as good."

In the Belmont, Easy Goer was considerably better than Sunday Silence, winning off by eight lengths and spoiling a Triple Crown.

"I really didn't think of it that way," McGaughey said. "Sure, it was exciting and all that, going over for the race and hearing the crowd. But I was dealing with our own reality. I was going over there to try and win the Belmont Stakes."

Good advice. Just as Barclay Tagg is trying to stay narrowly focused on the task of preparing Funny Cide for Saturday's challenge, Frankel has convinced himself that the events of the last six weeks are part of a greater continuum. The bruised foot that compromised Empire Maker's preparation for the Derby is a thing of the past. His training for the last five weeks has been interrupted only by the nuisance of rain.

"He really wasn't sound a couple days there before the Derby," Frankel said. "But now he's a hundred percent. I look at it this way: Because of what happened, and because I didn't have to run him on a bad track in the Preakness, I've got him for this race and the rest of the year."

Frankel is even confident enough to dismiss out of hand the arcane statistic that only one horse in the past 50 years has won the Belmont after five weeks between races.

"Forget all that baloney," Frankel said, except he didn't say "baloney." "When it comes to getting him ready, it's just another race. It just happens to be called the Belmont."

It sounded good. And you almost believed him when he said it. Still, with or without a Triple Crown at stake, the Belmont Stakes is always a race worth the trouble of winning.