Voting for the 2003 Eclipse Awards has not yet begun, but one category has already stirred impassioned debate. Funny Cide and Empire Maker, arch rivals in the Triple Crown series, will be part of another close race to decide the 3-year-old champion.
Two Daily Racing Form columnists, worrying that voters will make the wrong choice for the wrong reasons, have already fired salvos on behalf of Empire Maker. Steven Crist fretted that Empire Maker would be penalized because of widespread resentment over his premature retirement. This would be unjust, Crist wrote, because "he was clearly the most talented colt." Mike Watchmaker declared, "Funny Cide boosters are fools who simply don't know what they are viewing."
In fact, the relative merits of the two colts aren't quite as clear-cut as Empire Maker's adherents portray them.
Most sports fans remember vividly the way this year's 3-year-old drama unfolded. Empire Maker, hyped as a potential star before he set foot on a racetrack, was favored to win the Kentucky Derby after capturing both the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial Stakes. Funny Cide hadn't been regarded as a Derby candidate until his half-length loss in the Wood.
But on the first Saturday in May, everything came up roses for Funny Cide. He benefited from a perfect, ground-saving ride by Jose Santos to score an upset victory. Empire Maker, whose training had been compromised by a foot bruise, raced wide all the way and lost by 1 3/4 lengths.
When Empire Maker skipped the Preakness, Funny Cide faced moderate competition and won at Pimlico by nearly 10 lengths. He went to Belmont Park seeking to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, but Empire Maker spoiled his bid. Funny Cide finished third, five lengths behind.
Although racing fans hoped the Triple Crown series was just the beginning of an exciting rivalry, the colts never faced each other again, and neither won a race during the rest of 2003. Funny Cide lost the Haskell at Monmouth, and an illness sidelined him until his owners made the ill-advised decision to enter the Breeders' Cup Classic. Empire Maker narrowly lost the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga; bothered by more foot problems, he was retired to stud.
Empire Maker's fans point to the bottom line: The regally bred colt faced Funny Cide three times and beat him twice. Empire Maker won 3 of 6 starts as a 3-year-old, with all of the wins coming in Grade I stakes. Funny Cide was 2 for 8.
If the two colts had been in top condition and faced each other at 1 1/4 miles, most handicappers would have preferred Empire Maker. But his edge was a narrow one; the colts earned similar speed figures in their best races. Perhaps Empire Maker's half-length margin in the Wood Memorial was an accurate reflection of their relative ability.
But champions are determined by performances in championship events. The Breeders' Cup almost automatically decides some of the Eclipse Awards. However, the most definitive championship test in all of American horse racing is the one that exists for 3-year-olds: the Triple Crown series. Almost every good 3-year-old tries to win these races, and the ones who excel win year-end titles.
In the last 30 years, three horses have swept the Triple Crown and 16 have captured two-thirds of the series. Eighteen of the 19 have won the Eclipse Award. (The lone exception was Tabasco Cat in 1994). Funny Cide captured the big one, the Kentucky Derby. He can hardly be blamed for beating a weak Preakness field when trainer Bobby Frankel chose to skip the race so Empire Maker would be better rested for the Belmont. Modern horses have difficulty running three hard races in five weeks -- that's why the Triple Crown is so elusive -- and Funny Cide was at a disadvantage against fresher foes. Nevertheless, he performed honorably throughout the series, while stimulating widespread public interest in the sport. Is he less worthy of a title than a rival who won one race, had an excuse in one and skipped one?
Crist argues that voters should be not be influenced by Empire Maker's early retirement, but why not? The sport ought to encourage owners and trainers to run their horses instead of following the path of least resistance to a lucrative career at stud.
After physical problems disrupted Empire Maker's 3-year-old campaign, owner Khalid Abdullah could have raced the colt next season instead of retiring him. As a 4-year-old Empire Maker might well have proved himself a champion.
But he didn't conclusively earn a championship as a 3-year-old, even if he did possess more talent than his main rival. For taking on the sport's toughest challenges and nearly winning its greatest prize, Funny Cide deserves the Eclipse Award.