Monday, April 14, 2003

Empire rules Derby field



By Richard Rosenblatt
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Bobby Frankel says Empire Maker is still learning. That's a scary thought for those preparing to challenge the dark bay colt in the Kentucky Derby in less than three weeks.

By winning the Wood Memorial in comfortable fashion Saturday, Empire Maker confirmed his status as the Derby favorite. Actually, he did more. The colt Frankel says gives him "good vibes" probably set the theme leading up to the May 3 race at Churchill Downs:

Can anyone out there beat him?

"I'm in a good spot," Frankel admits.

No kidding. Empire Maker has been perfect in his last two preps, winning the Florida Derby by 9 3/4 lengths while wearing blinkers for the first time, and taking the Wood by half a length without jockey Jerry Bailey pulling out his whip.

"He's handled everything thrown at him so far," Bailey said. "He's still got some things to learn. He's like a kid at 7, 8, 9 and 10."

Frankel simply says, "He's special."

It sure looks that way. Empire Maker's pedigree says "champion," and so do his connections. His sire is 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled. His dam is Toussad, who now has four Grade 1 stakes winners - Chester House, Honest Lady and Chiselling are the others.

Bailey has won six Eclipse Awards for the nation's top rider; Frankel has four training Eclipses; and owner Juddmonte Farms, run by Saudi prince Khalid Abdullah, has three for breeding.

As for stamina, Empire Maker might be the most fit 3-year-old, even though he has just five starts. His last four races have been 1 1/8 miles, so stretching out to the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles shouldn't be a problem.

Before the Wood, Frankel was asked to list Empire Maker's strengths. "Everything," he said.

Frankel is 0-for-4 in the Derby but has come close - Aptitude was second in 2000.

Empire Maker's toughest challenge could come from Frankel's other Derby horse, Peace Rules. After his 3 1/2-length win in Saturday's Blue Grass at Keeneland, Peace Rules probably will be the second choice in the Derby.

"Peace Rules ran very well," Frankel said. "The only question about him is the distance." Winning time for the Blue Grass was 1:51.73, slowest since 1988.

Who else poses a threat?

• Bob Baffert. The trainer of three of the last six Derby winners could enter a trio of 3-year-olds: Kafwain, Indian Express and Senor Swinger. Kafwain has been his most consistent, but was third in the Santa Anita Derby on April 5. Distance is a big question. Indian Express was second in the same race but has run just four times. Senor Swinger was fifth in the Wood in his first race with Baffert.

• Buddy Gil. Winner of the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby, the gelding bled despite the use of Lasix in his last race and won't be allowed to train again for another week. Health and fitness could be an issue on Derby day.

• Ten Most Wanted. This colt comes into the Derby off his Illinois Derby victory - the same race War Emblem won before his Derby win last year. He has two wins in five starts.

• Brancusi. Second in the Blue Grass after finishing third in the San Felipe. Seems to be improving with each race for trainer Patrick Biancone, but has only a maiden win in seven starts.

• Funny Cide. Another gelding set for Churchill Downs after his gutty second-place effort in the Wood. The last gelding to win the Derby, though, was Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.

• Atswhatimtalkinbout. Hype machine fizzled after a dull fourth in the Santa Anita Derby. If the Derby field is chosen based on graded stakes earnings (only if more than 20 want to enter), the colt partly owned by Steven Spielberg could be left out.

• Region of Merit. A winner of four straight before finishing fourth in Saturday's Arkansas Derby, the Calumet Farms-owned colt might still show up in the Derby.

• Man Among Men. He beat Empire Maker in the Sham Stakes on Feb. 7, but was 10th in the Arkansas Derby, won by long shot Sir Cherokee.

Others Derby prospects include Eugene's Third Son, New York Hero, Ocean Terrace, Offlee Wild and Supah Blitz.

Empire Maker is ready to take on all comers.

---

Richard Rosenblatt is the national horse racing writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at rrosenblatt@ap.org




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