Saturday, May 3, 2003

Frankel has inside track on Hollywood ending


Lukas goes for No. 5. The knives are out on Baffert. Spielberg's got an interest. And just what is the state of Empire Maker's foot?

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LOUISVILLE - For two minutes, it's up to the horses. But the Kentucky Derby is a lifelong passion for the people involved, to whom every moment this week has seemed to last as long.

THE KENTUCKY DERBY


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"The last four days (before the race) are the longest of your year," three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert said. "You're counting the hours, holding your breath. You don't know what to think."

Every Derby is colored by its backside stories. They often contrast, from long-struggling horsemen here with a rare shot at glory to the Hollywood moguls and foreign royalty who can buy their way into nearly any Derby.

Today, all will follow the lead of Bobby Frankel, who knows this race's fickle nature. The Hall of Fame trainer four times has been named the nation's top trainer but gone 0-for-4 in the Derby.

He'll saddle Empire Maker, the 6-5 morning line favorite. But favorites have lost all but one of the past 23 Derbies, and this horse is beset with a bruised foot and has questionable composure.

Frankel, a 61-year-old, no-nonsense sort from Brooklyn, surprisingly is ascribing a mystical quality to what could be his crowning achievement.

"I believe the script is already written," he said. "I think he's meant to win. ... It's going to be the biggest thing of my career."

Besides the unsettling foot injury, every other factor points to Empire Maker.

He's the best-bred horse in the race, the product of 1990 Derby winner Unbridled and mare-to-the-stars Toussaud. Frankel actually went on ESPN in May 2001 and said he'd win the 2003 Derby with an Unbridled-Toussaud yearling.

The horse has the hottest trainer. He has the hottest jockey, Jerry Bailey, named the nation's top rider the past three years. He has seen the crop of 3-year-old rivals depleted by injuries.

Frankel insists the horse's foot has healed, saying he might even run him in a full shoe instead of the three-quarter shoe he had put on him to relieve pressure.

Nevertheless, media speculation about the horse's condition has dominated the week.

"All this will just make him be worth more money, that's all," Frankel said. "After he wins, he'll get more publicity and they'll say, 'Wow, what a super horse this is. With a bruised foot, he won.' "

He'll run against a field of 15 challengers, reduced by one Friday after 15-1 shot Sir Cherokee scratched with an ankle fracture. One of Empire Maker's chief rivals could be barnmate Peace Rules, an 8-1 shot.

Eight of 14 trainers with horses in the field are here for the first time. There are five jockeys with their first Derby mount.

A look at some story lines:

• A pair of 65-year-old trainers are trying for a career highlight.

Wally Dollase, who had an empty barn when fired four years ago by the Thoroughbred Corp., has rallied with second choice Ten Most Wanted. T.V. Smith, who has trained for 45 years in numerous states, has reached his first Derby with Offlee Wild.

• Rosemary Homeister Jr. will be just the fifth woman to ride in a Derby and try to become the first winner. She's aboard 50-1 shot Supah Blitz.

"I know it's not like any other race, but I have to make it like that," she said. "I know how to ride, and I've been around the oval 14,000 times."

• Louisville native Amy Ellis, wife of trainer Ron Ellis, is undergoing a lifetime thrill with their first Derby; they're entering Atswhatimtalknbout.

"She's having trouble sleeping and is breaking into tears occasionally," Ron Ellis said. "She made us promise her, if we win, we won't trample her when she faints."

• It's a Hollywood Derby. Atswhatimtalknbout is part-owned by Steven Spielberg and Gary Ross, the producer and director of the film Seabiscuit. Gary Stevens, who will ride Buddy Gil, acted in Seabiscuit.

• Brancusi came close to death after a difficult birth, having to be nursed around the clock by his breeders. He survived and matured into a Derby contender.

• A headline on the cover of the May issue of GQ reads, "Why Everybody Hates Bob Baffert." The thoroughbred industry, perhaps tinged with jealousy, has soured on the star trainer.

Entering Indian Express, he'll try to get back in others' good graces.

• Gregarious owners Bob and Beverly Lewis, who became beloved after winning Derbies with Silver Charm and Charismatic, try for a third win with Scrimshaw.

• Trainer D. Wayne Lukas tries for a fifth Derby victory.

---

E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com

Derby Day essentials

Post time: 6:04 p.m. today

TV: NBC (Chs. 5, 22).

Radio: WCKY-AM (1360), starting at 5:30 p.m.

Weather: Racetime forecast calls for temperatures in the upper 60s and partly sunny.

Where to bet: Turfway Park (Florence), River Downs (Kellogg Avenue in Cincinnati) and Lebanon Raceway will show the Derby on simulcast and are open for betting. Doors open: Turfway, 10:15 a.m.; River Downs, 10:30 a.m.; Lebanon, 9 a.m.

Our guide to The Kentucky Derby (PDF; 960k)
Churchill Downs map/directions (PDF; 230k)
The Kentucky Derby field (PDF; 120k)




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