On the day before the Breeders' Cup last October at Arlington
Park, trainer John Ward learned that his brilliant 2-year-old,
Sky Mesa, had suffered an injury to his right front ankle that
would keep him from running in the juvenile race and imperil his
Kentucky Derby chances in the spring. "When you've got a good
horse, you know the percentages are against you," Ward said that
day. "You hope to defy the statistics." Horses get hurt,
inexplicably slow down or are simply damned by bad luck. There
are no guarantees in racing.
That point was driven home twice in a matter of 20 minutes on
Sunday. Overwhelming favorite Empire Maker ran second to Strong
Hope in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga, and Funny Cide was a soundly
beaten third behind Peace Rules and Sky Mesa in the Haskell
Invitational at Monmouth. Ever since Empire Maker denied Funny
Cide the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes on June 7,
racing officials had tirelessly promoted a showdown between the
two horses in the Aug. 23 Travers at Saratoga, a rivalry that
would continue to invigorate the sport. Now the Travers is no
longer a two-horse showdown.
Empire Maker's loss was surprising, though not devastating. Jerry
Bailey, generally regarded as the best big-race rider in the
world, inexplicably sat seven lengths behind the comfortable pace
set by Strong Hope and came up a neck short at the wire. "I think
he needs to be right [on the pace]," trainer Bobby Frankel said
after the race. "That keeps him focused." Yet Empire Maker was
closing ground at the finish, and the Travers, at 10 furlongs, is
an eighth of a mile longer than the Jim Dandy.
Questions about Funny Cide are more substantial. Jockey Jose
Santos said the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner spit the bit
less than three furlongs into the race and never took it again,
indicating his unwillingness to run. "Funny Cide was not the same
horse I rode in the Derby or the Preakness," said Santos.
Funny Cide's listless performance could create a showdown of
another kind. Sackatoga Stable, the rollicking 10-man consortium
that owns Funny Cide, is named for Sackets Harbor, N.Y., where
five of the stable's owners went to high school, and Saratoga
Springs, where managing partner Jack Knowlton lives. Members of
the syndicate want desperately to race Funny Cide in the Travers.
"As long as he's sound, he'll be there," Knowlton said after the
But trainer Barclay Tagg wasn't so sure. After watching Funny
Cide cool down on the Monmouth backstretch, Tagg said, "He's
tired. I've never seen him this tired, but it was a long, hot
day." As for the Travers, he said, "I might not make that
decision until the week of the race."
Meanwhile, for Ward, the capricious racing cycle has brought good
fortune back to his barn. Sky Mesa, who was competing for just
the second time since his injury, set his sights on the Travers.
"I feel good about my horse," Ward said after Sunday's race.
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER (TOP) Funny Cide (second from left) didn't respond as Peace Rules (right) took the lead.
COLOR PHOTO: ADAM COGLIANESE/NYRA/AP Empire Maker (left) made a gallant stretch run but couldn't catch Strong Hope.