Saturday, May 3, 2003

Empire Maker is the complete package



By BOB MATTHEWS
Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle

Old horse racing adage: A short-priced winner is better than a long-priced loser.

THE KENTUCKY DERBY


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Modern Kentucky Derby fact: A long-priced winner is much better than a short-priced loser.

Empire Maker, the current star of the 3-year-old thoroughbred crop, will need to beat "the jinx of the post-time favorites" and 15 other horses to win the 129th Kentucky Derby Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs.

Empire Maker has a chance to become only the second winning Derby favorite in 24 years partly because he is a legitimate quality racehorse and partly because most of his rivals have yet to distinguish themselves.

Here is my predicted order of finish:

16th: Eye of the Tiger. His most recent and second career win was in an optional claiming race at Golden Gate. This son of American Chance and Dial a Trick would need a few magic tricks to have a chance stretching out here. For the record, the longest-priced Derby winner was Donerail at $184.90 for a $2 win bet in 1913.

15th: Lone Star Sky. Had three wins as a 2-year-old but is 0-for-4 in 2003. His most recent race was a distant fourth-place finish in the Illinois Derby. Figures to be a nice allowance horse and might belong on this card but not in this race.

14th: Ten Cents a Shine. Named because wealthy owner Ken Ramsey's first job was as a shoe shine boy. Ten cents is a dime more than he figures to collect from this Derby purse. The colt lost his last three races by a combined 80 lengths. Even fans of trainer D. Wayne Lukas would have a difficult time backing this colt in this spot.

13th: Outta Here. His future probably is on the grass going shorter. Conditioning is the big question Saturday. A hard-luck fourth in the United Arab Emirates Derby March 29 was his only start this year. The last horse to win the Derby coming off only one race as a 3-year-old was Bold Venture in 1936.

12th: Domestic Dispute. This disappointing colt changed hands last Saturday. Trainer Bob Baffert and the former owner intended to skip the Derby in favor of the Preakness Stakes May 17 but the new owners and trainer Paddy Gallagher are taking a shot in the Derby. Won the Santa Catalina Stakes in January, fifth in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby and third in the Lexington Stakes. Will try hard but probably isn't among the top 10 in this field.

11th: Supah Blitz. Nicknamed "Supahman" by Rosemary Homeister Jr., who'll be only the fifth female jockey in Derby history. If she becomes the first female jockey to win the Run for the Roses, it probably won't be Saturday. The most experienced horse in this race (15 starts), but his only two wins came in a 3-furlong maiden dash and a state-bred sprint in Florida last year.

10th: Indian Express. This lightly raced colt (four career starts) is owned by Phil Chess, the 83-year-old record producer who discovered Chuck Berry. Chess probably won't be making any moves to the winner's circle Saturday but should have some early thrills. The first Utah-bred horse in Derby history is the likely pace setter. The colt's two wins were sprint romps in Panama. Earned a trip to the Derby with a game second in the Santa Anita Derby at 35-to-1. Trainer Bob Baffert has saddled three of the last six Derby winners, including last year, when War Emblem took an unchallenged lead and won in wire-to-wire fashion. Indian Express is expected to have more company up front and is much less likely to hold on.

9th: Offlee Wild. Fourth in the Fountain of Youth and third in the Blue Grass Stakes after winning the Holy Bull at Gulfstream at 27-to-1 in January. Has had some poor racing luck and could pick up a check with a nice trip Saturday.

8th: Funny Cide. This New York-bred gelding has two strikes against him. No horse bred in New York ever has won the Derby and the last Derby-winning gelding was Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. A game second to Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial, but he was giving his best while the winner was under wraps. Likely to stay close to the pace most of the way but his pedigree is suspect for 1 1/4 miles.

7th: Brancusi. Only one win in seven career starts, but this is one horse bred to get the distance and could pad the return on exotic wagers. Third in the San Felipe and a surprising second to Peace Rules in the Blue Grass Stakes. Tony Farina will try to become the first jockey to win in his Derby debut since Ronnie Franklin aboard Spectacular Bid in 1979.

6th: Scrimshaw. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas belatedly found a Derby horse for the 22nd time in the last 23 years. After missing three weeks of training after minor throat surgery to correct a breathing problem, this colt took advantage of a rail-hugging trip to win the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland April 19. Improving sort with the ideal stalking style for the Derby but the extreme outside post position won't help.

5th: Peace Rules. Enters the Derby with credentials second only to stablemate Empire Maker. Taken off the grass to win the Louisiana Derby from slightly off the pace and the Blue Grass Stakes wire-to-wire with perfect trips. Figures to be a major factor in the race, win or lose. His breeding suggests he might not have the stamina to carry his speed 1 1/4 miles, but he is game enough to assure that Empire Maker won't be ambushed by a fast horse alone on the lead.

4th: Buddy Gil. The first Derby starter bred in Idaho will be ridden by Boise native Gary Stevens, who has three wins and two seconds in the Derby. The gelding won the Baldwin Stakes at Santa Anita Feb. 23 at odds of 26-to-1 and followed that up with an upset win in the Santa Anita Derby April 5.

An honest sort who'll run as hard as he can for as long as he can, but he was out of gas and bled at the finish of the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby is one furlong longer.

SHOW: Atswhatimatalknbout. A well-bred stretch runner owned by a group of Hollywood heavyweights including Steven Spielberg, Gary Ross and Frank Marshall. If they had control of the script, this son of A.P. Indy would close fast to win by a nose at a generous price. But this is real life and unraced 2-year-olds hardly ever win the Run for the Roses.

The big colt was a disappointing fourth with an excuse (dulled by antibiotics to treat a skin rash) as the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby and is one of the 10 horses in Saturday's race without a victory in a graded stakes. But a sharp workout at Churchill Downs and the addition of blinkers have inspired fresh hope.

PLACE: Ten Most Wanted. Hopes to duplicate War Emblem's feat last year of winning the Illinois Derby and Kentucky Derby. He didn't beat much in a four-length victory in Illinois April 5 but the way he did it was impressive. He was bottled up entering the stretch and then drew away with a powerful late kick. Patient Pat Day is a perfect fit as jockey.

Empire Maker has a modest advantage in speed figures entering the race but Ten Most Wanted's odds are tempting.

WIN: Empire Maker. Classic breeding, tactical speed and stamina are a tough combination to beat and this colt is the complete package. The son of 1990 Derby winner Unbridled romped by 10 lengths in the Florida Derby, won without being seriously pressured in the Wood Memorial and had an impressive six-furlong workout in 1:12 3/5 seconds Sunday at Churchill Downs.

Expected to be the heaviest Derby favorite since Arazi was 4-to-5 in 1992 (and finished eighth). Only one post-time favorite has won the Derby in the last 23 years, but it happened 48 times in the first 105 editions of the Run for the Roses.

Trainer Bobby Frankel is 0-for-4 in the Derby but confident entering this race and says Empire Maker has plenty left in the tank. Even the best horse needs a clean trip in such a large field. Jerry Bailey, probably the world's best jockey, is a master at avoiding trouble. Only three Derby winners broke from the No. 12 post position but it is the spot Bailey most wanted.

Empire Maker's bruised right front foot adds an element of doubt and gives his rivals cause for optimism. If he wins Saturday, he'll be touted as the likely first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.

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




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