ESPN Horse Racing

Good, but not great
By Bill Finley
Special to

The question had been asked throughout the week, but it could not be answered until 6:43 p.m. Saturday when the first horse crossed the wire in the Belmont Stakes, the stiffest test of the gutsy New York-bred gelding's career.

Is Funny Cide a great horse?

Now we know. The answer is, no. He is merely very good, and that's not good enough.

That conclusion comes, obviously, with the value of hindsight, but it's as firm and as definitive as can be. Slop or no slop, excessively fast workout or no excessively fast workout, Empire Maker or no Empire Maker, a great horse would have risen to the occasion and gotten the job done.

That is what is so marvelous and special about the Triple Crown. No one sneaks by, no one wins it cheaply or gets lucky. The series has an amazing and undeniable ability to separate those who are worthy and those who are not. It always happens that way. Always.

For all he accomplished, for as special as his story may have been, Funny Cide was always a better fit among the list of those who couldn't quite get it done than the roster of immortals that begins with Sir Barton and ends with Affirmed. That so many people were pulling for him was not going to mean a thing out on the racetrack. In the end, he just didn't have what it takes to pull it off.

None of this, by the way, is meant as a slight toward Funny Cide. He should be recognized for what he is, an outstanding horse with a lot of heart who delivered on two of the biggest days of the racing year, in the Kentucky Derby and in the Preakness. As long as he stays healthy, he's going to continue to win a lot of important races and make a lot of money for the people who own him. With a few more Grade I victories, his place in the Hall of Fame will have been assured.

At the same time, he was a horse who defeated only New York breds as a 2-year-old and was 0-for-3 on the year entering the Kentucky Derby. He may have gotten a little lucky in the Derby in that Empire Maker evidently didn't run his best race and he beat up on a terrible field in the Preakness. Sorry, but that kind of record doesn't exactly get a horse into the greatness category.

It's hard to even make an argument anymore that he's the best 3-year-old in the country. The score stands Empire Maker 2, Funny Cide 1, and Empire Maker's two wins over Funny Cide could not have been more decisive. The two will likely meet again, and maybe even a bunch of times. The best guess is that their paths will cross next in the Aug. 23 Travers at Saratoga, where Empire Maker will probably be the favorite.

A rivalry would be, as they say, good for the game, but it might just be a one-sided one. Can you really see Funny Cide beating Empire Maker again any time soon? It's a lot easier to envision Empire Maker dominating his division the rest of the way.

"I think I can win the Breeders' Cup with this horse," Frankel said after the Belmont. "I think he's that good a horse."

A lot of people left Belmont Park feeling cheated Saturday. Not only was this the fifth time in the last seven years that a horse had come up short in a Triple Crown bid, but Funny Cide's defeat was even harder to swallow considering his popular appeal. It's not easy to get teased so many times in so few years with the outcome always being that another one has failed to win the Triple Crown. People can get awful hungry for a Triple Crown winner after a 25-year drought.

How much longer will it be? Who knows. My guess is it may be a long, long time before we see another horse win the Triple Crown. Yep, they don't make ‘em like they used to. Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed were all great 2-year-old who went on to be great 3-year-olds. Today's top 2-year-olds are almost always toast well before Kentucky Derby Day. The spring rushes in a new wave of good 3-year-olds, who are inevitably talented horses who are going to have a hard time running three top efforts within five weeks and most likely won't be bred to get a mile and a half.

But when a Triple Crown is won, it will be done by a great horse. He will be great from day one and there will be nothing fluky about any of his Triple Crown victories. He will have an aura to him and everyone will know that he deserved to win the Triple Crown and no one will dare say or write that there was anything cheap about the accomplishment. He will have class. He will have stamina. He will have speed. He will be special. He will not be a horse who cheapened the accomplishment of winning the Triple Crown.

No matter how long it takes, it will be worth the wait.

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