Updated on 09/17/2011 11:38AM

Would-be king now out to deny crown

Empire Maker will play the role of Triple Crown spoiler in Saturday's 135th Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Think back to those days of old, a little more than a month ago, when everybody - everybody - knew that by the week of the Belmont Stakes, there was going to be a horse going for the Triple Crown.

It just wasn't supposed to be Funny Cide.

No, it wasn't all that long ago that Empire Maker was being heralded as a potential Triple Crown winner. He has a regal pedigree, by Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled out of the mare Toussaud, who has produced five graded stakes winners. He had won the Florida Derby in a runaway, had toyed with Funny Cide in the Wood Memorial, and was going to be one of the shortest-price favorites in Kentucky Derby history.

Then it all went wrong for Empire Maker. He bruised a foot the week of the Kentucky Derby and had his training interrupted. He was outrun by Funny Cide in the Derby, then passed the Preakness, which Funny Cide won by nearly 10 lengths.

Now, Empire Maker finds himself not in the role of Triple Crown candidate, but Triple Crown spoiler. It is Funny Cide who stands on the brink of immortality, with Empire Maker reduced to trying to crash the party expected to lure more than 100,000 fans to Belmont Park for Saturday's 135th Belmont Stakes.

The Belmont is a pivotal race for Empire Maker, and no one knows that more than his trainer, Bobby Frankel, who was one of the many who thought Empire Maker was a potential Triple Crown winner.

"He has to win the race," Frankel said at his Belmont Park barn. "If he's that good, he has to win."

If Empire Maker loses, he will go down as one of the biggest disappointments in Triple Crown history, an overrated 3-year-old who could not even win one leg of the Triple Crown. If it is Funny Cide who beats him, Empire Maker's chances of being named 3-year-old champion will evaporate. But if Empire Maker can defeat Funny Cide, he will own a 2-1 edge in head-to-head matches with Funny Cide, will be back in the hunt for a year-end Eclipse Award, and will redeem a reputation that has been battered.

"All this speculation should be settled by 6:45 on Saturday," Frankel said. "That's why there's going to be 125,000 people here. I'm excited. We'll see what my horse is made out of."

Frankel has trained Empire Maker far more aggressively for the Belmont than the Derby. His preparation for the Derby, in hindsight, might have bordered on overconfidence.

Frankel wanted Empire Maker to win the Wood, but wanted jockey Jerry Bailey to do just enough to win, no more, in order to save something for Derby Day. That plan worked in the Wood.

"This is exactly what we wanted to get out of this race," Bailey said right after the Wood. "If I had really gotten into him and we would have won by more, it would have defeated the purpose of saving something for the Kentucky Derby."

But Frankel's light schedule leading up to the Derby - just one workout in three weeks - left no margin for error. When Empire Maker bruised his right front foot, that forced him to miss critical training time the week of the race. Coupled with the tactics employed in the Wood, the question can rightly be raised if Empire Maker was at his best for the Derby.

"Soundness-wise, he was," Frankel said. "But fitness-wise, I don't know."

That should not be a concern this week. Empire Maker's foot has recovered to the point where he can now wear a conventional racing plate, rather than the so-called three-quarter shoe he wore Derby Day. In addition, Frankel has given Empire Maker a strong series of workouts leading up to the Belmont. He had four workouts in 17 days, including last Saturday's six-furlong drill in 1:13.05.

Frankel was even able to dodge the raindrops that have left Belmont's track in sloppy condition several times in recent weeks. Frankel worked Empire Maker on the Belmont turf on May 25 after briefly flirting with the idea of running in the Jersey Derby at Monmouth Park on May 26.

"Everything's gone right so far. There's been no hiccups," Frankel said.

Empire Maker seemed quite happy in his stall the other morning. Frankel petted him affectionately. "He's a cool, kind horse," Frankel said.

Frankel is still seeking his first victory in a Triple Crown race. He has finished second twice in the Belmont in the past three runnings, with Aptitude in 2000 and Medaglia d'Oro last year. Both were defeated by longshots, Commendable in 2000 and Sarava, at 70-1 the biggest-priced winner in Belmont history, last year.

If he is as good as Frankel believes, Empire Maker might be his best shot at winning the Belmont.

"Aptitude wasn't sound," Frankel said. "Medaglia d'Oro, I didn't know what to expect. I was just happy he ran good, coming off his terrible race in the Preakness."

Then again, neither of them was running against a horse as tactically adaptable as Funny Cide, whose early speed and finishing kick enable him to get the ideal trips that one-run closers or one-dimensional front-runners can only dream about. To counter Funny Cide's speed, look for Empire Maker to engage him early.

"Jerry's going to let him run out of there," Frankel said.

Then they will find out who is better. A mile and a half. Level weights. Over a track at which both are undefeated.

"You always have reservations the next time after you get beat," Frankel said, reflecting on his thoughts since the Derby disappointment. "It's horse racing. No matter how short a price you are, they all get beat. But basically, with this horse, I've got a lot of confidence."