Sunday, March 16, 2003

Empire Maker takes Florida Derby by record margin



The Associated Press

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Bobby Frankel has his real Kentucky Derby horse now. The Hall of Fame trainer boasted long and loud that Empire Maker was the best 3-year-old in his barn, and the bay colt lived up to the billing with a record-setting romp in the Florida Derby on Saturday.

Unleashing a powerful kick in the stretch, Empire Maker barreled past favored Trust N Luck and won the richest Derby prep race by 9 3/4 lengths - the largest margin of victory in 52 runnings of the Florida Derby.

"He ran like we trained him," Frankel said. "I don't usually say this, but I envisioned this race the night before being run exactly the way it was."

Highly touted yet lightly raced, Empire Maker is likely to move to the top of most Kentucky Derby contender lists. The victory also gives Frankel a strong chance to win his first Run for the Roses. He's 0-for-4, including a second-place finish with Aptitude in 2000 and a fourth with Medaglia d'Oro last year.

"He might have peaked, but if he runs like this in the Derby, he probably could win it," Frankel said. The four-time Eclipse Award winning trainer also handles Louisiana Derby winner Peace Rules, but has said the colt might not make it to the Derby.

Frankel plans to analyze Saturday's race before deciding whether Empire Maker would run next in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 12 or just train up to the Derby.

"When you train a horse like this, he's a natural horse to get a mile-and-a-quarter," Frankel said in a reference to the Derby distance. "He's not a horse that you have to train to be fit enough to get the distance. He was born to run a mile-and-a-quarter."

Empire Maker, sent off as the second betting choice at 2-1, covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.05 in winning for the second time in four starts for Juddmonte Farms, owned by Saudi prince Khalid Abdullah.

Trust N Luck, the even-money favorite off his Fountain of Youth Stakes win Feb. 15, held on for second by a half length over Indy Dancer. Supah Blitz was fourth, with Senor Swinger fifth, and Formal Attire sixth.

The $1 million race was marred when Midway Cat went down on the far turn and was euthanized minutes after shattering his right front leg. Jockey Jorge Chavez was thrown to the ground and taken by ambulance to a hospital. A spokesman at Hollywood Regional Hospital said X-rays showed Chavez has "no fractures or breaks" and added the rider was "OK."

As expected, Trust N Luck broke first and set the pace on a hot, cloudy day at Gulfstream Park. But unlike his wire-to-wire Fountain of Youth victory, when he wasn't challenged on the lead, Midway Cat was right behind, with Empire Maker, equipped with blinkers for the first time, cruising along in fourth.

Under the urging of jockey Jerry Bailey, Empire Maker began moving up around the turn and positioned himself to overtake Trust N Luck at the top of the stretch. Empire Maker, with only a maiden win in three previous starts, took over just inside the 3/16ths pole and coasted home to victory in front of crowd of 24,055.

"I was a little surprised Trust N Luck didn't show a little more speed," Bailey said. "He didn't seem quite as sharp as he had been today, but I was kind of sitting on some high octane myself. It seems like he can go as far as he wants as far as I could tell."

Empire Maker, a son of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled, paid $6.20, $2.80 and $2.40. Trust N Luck, trained by Ralph Ziadie, paid $2.40 and $2.10. Indy Dancer, trained by Todd Pletcher, returned $3.20.

In earning $600,000 for the win, Empire Maker raised his total earnings to $665,800.

If Empire Maker doesn't run again until the Derby, he would be trying to buck history at Churchill Downs.

Exterminator in 1918 was the last to win the Derby in his fifth career start. Also, the last Derby winner that had just two starts as a 3-year old entering the race was Sunny's Halo in 1983.

Ralph Ziadie, who trains Trust N Luck, said he wanted to make sure his colt comes out of the race healthy before moving on to the Kentucky Derby.

"A good horse beat me, one of the better ones in the country," Ziadie said. "I was very happy with the race."

So was Frankel.

FINISH LINES: The previous largest margin of victory in the Florida Derby was Plugged Nickel's six-length win in 1980 ... In the 51 previous Florida Derbys, 10 winners have gone on to capture the Kentucky Derby, including Monarchos in 2001. ... Before saddling Empire Maker, Frankel had one other Florida Derby runner - Ruhlmann, eighth in 1988 ... Another Frankel 3-year-old, Midas Eyes, won the seven-furlong Swale Stakes by 9 1/4 lengths, but Frankel has said the colt is not a Derby prospect.

Undefeated Sky Mesa off Derby trail

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Sky Mesa is officially off the Kentucky Derby trail. The colt, undefeated as a 2-year-old but unraced this year, has been slow recovering from a bruised right front foot that knocked him out of training three weeks ago. Sky Mesa, a winner in all three of his starts, hasn't raced since Oct. 5.

"The timing puts us out of the Derby and likely out of the Preakness," trainer John Ward said Friday night before leaving Lexington, Ky., to return to Florida. "The most logical step for us now is to point toward the Belmont Stakes."

The Belmont is June 7.

Sky Mesa missed the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with a wrenched right front ankle a few days before the race Oct. 26. The colt returned to training earlier this year, but was sidelined three weeks ago with his current injury.

"It's taken longer than we thought to get over the latest problem," Ward said.

Sky Mesa was at the Rood and Riddle Equine Clinic in Lexington on Tuesday, where he was examined by Dr. Larry Bramlage. Bramlage confirmed the injury was no more than a bruise, Ward said.

Sky Mesa, who had been training at Palm Beach Downs, about 40 miles north of Gulfstream Park, was being shipped back to Florida on Friday, Ward said.

Sky Mesa joins two other top 2-year-olds who were knocked out of the Derby picture by injuries - Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion Vindication and multiple stakes winner Toccet.

Kentucky Derby

A glance at Kentucky Derby prospects with rankings before this weekend's prep races (includes Mike Battaglia's Pool 2 Derby future odds):

1. Domestic Dispute (Bob Baffert, trainer; Jerry Bailey, jockey): A reach, at best. With Bailey aboard, son of Unbridled's Song could solidify top spot with San Felipe win today . . . Well-seasoned with win in last race, 1 1/16th-mile Santa Catalina on Jan. 18 . . . Two wins and two seconds in seven starts . . . Worked 6 furlongs in 1:11.20 at Santa Anita. Derby future odds: 15-1.

2. Lion Tamer (Todd Pletcher, trainer; John Velazquez, jockey): Worked 4 furlongs in 49.60 at Palm Meadows training center . . . Won Hutcheson at Gulfstream by six lengths in last start, Feb. 15 . . . Won last three races in four career starts for owner Michael Tabor . . . Next start, Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park (March 22). Derby future wager odds: 15-1.

3. Empire Maker (Bobby Frankel, trainer; Bailey, jockey): Lightly raced son of Unbridled won Saturday's Florida Derby by a record 9 3/4 lengths and should move to the top of the list of Kentucky Derby contenders in the next rankings. Derby future wager odds: 12-1.

4. Trust N Luck (Ralph Ziadie, trainer; Cornelio Velasquez, jockey): Badly beaten runner-up in the Florida Derby before training up to Derby . . . Winner in five of nine previous starts, including 5 1/2-length score in Fountain of Youth on Feb. 15. Derby futureodds: 12-1.

5. Peace Rules (Frankel, trainer; Edgar Prado, jockey): Jumps into picture off Louisiana Derby win . .  Win came in 3-year-old debut, and was a return to dirt after winning three of last four on grass  .. . Next start, Blue Grass at Keeneland (April 12). Derby future odds: 10-1.

6. Kafwain (Baffert, trainer; Victor Espinoza, jockey): Don't count powerful colt out just because of runner-up finish in Louisiana Derby . . . Baffert claims Espinoza failed to stay close enough to pace . . . Next start, Santa Anita Derby (April 5) or Wood Memorial (April 12). Derby future wager odds: 15-1.

7. Composure (Baffert, trainer; Bailey, jockey): After win in Santa Anita Oaks, filly remains on Derby trail . . . Derby decision still weeks away  . .. Has four wins and three seconds in eight starts for owners Bob and Beverly Lewis . . . Next start undecided. Derby future wager odds: 15-1.

8. Region of Merit (Christophe Clement, trainer; Eibar Coa, jockey): Can't wait to see if colt can win in Tampa . . . Won last race impressively, taking mile, 70-yard allowance at Gulfstream on Feb. 15 . . . Touch Gold colt has three wins in four starts. Derby odds: 30-1.

9. Atswhatimtalknbout (Ron Ellis, trainer; David Flores, jockey): Another newcomer, A.P. Indy colt runs in today's San Felipe and merits mention off impressive 1 1/16th-mile allowance win at Santa Anita. Derby future odds: 10-1.

10. Badge of Silver (Ronny Werner, trainer; Robby Albarado, jockey): Minor throat surgery this week after breathing problem developed in Louisiana Derby . . . Sixth-place finish was first loss in four starts . . . Werner says colt should be ready for next start, Illinois Derby at Hawthorne (April 5). Derby future odds: 20-1.

Keep in mind: Aristocat, Lone Star Sky, Ocean Terrace and Florida Derby also-ran Senor Swinger.

TURFWAY PARK

Mail Call, racing without blinkers for the first time in two years, powered past Deferred Comp in the final strides to win by a half-length in the $50,000 Tejano Run Stakes for older horses. Horrible Evening, the 4-to-5 favorite, finished fourth of six.

"This is my first stakes win since I went on my own five years ago, and the first for my parents (owners Sara and Glenn Montgomery) as well," said trainer Gary Montgomery, a former assistant to leading Kentucky trainers Paul McGee and Kenny McPeek.

Mail Call, 5, claimed by the Montgomerys for $30,000 as a 3-year-old, improved to 5-3-6 in 24 starts with earnings of $163,375.




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