`Empire's' Frankel casts vote for `Luck'

Trainer of early favorite says rival has Florida edge

Horse Racing

March 15, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE, Fla. -- Everyone waits for Empire Maker as if he were the answer to the Kentucky Derby puzzle.

The regally bred colt with the Hall of Fame connections competes in the $1 million Florida Derby today at Gulfstream Park. It's only his fourth race, and he's won only one of his previous three. But a commanding victory by this son of Unbridled and the preeminent broodmare Toussaud would probably thrust him into the lofty role of Kentucky Derby favorite.

But Empire Maker won't win the Florida Derby. What's that? His trainer, Bobby Frankel, said he doesn't think Empire Maker can beat Trust N Luck, his main nemesis in the 1 1/8 -mile race.

"Me as a handicapper," Frankel said, "if I had to bet, I'd tap out on Trust N Luck."

Gulfstream Park's oddsmaker, Chuck Streva, tabbed Empire Maker the 9-5 morning-line favorite and Trust N Luck the 2-1 second choice. Frankel said that's a "terrible" morning line. Frankel's line? Trust N Luck 4-5, Empire Maker 5-2.

Trust N Luck has already shown what he can do. His last two races have been front-running romps. He's also won from off the pace. His trainer, Ralph Ziadie, insisted his speedster doesn't have to have the lead to win, but that he probably will in the Florida Derby.

Empire Maker has yet to show what he can do. He's been saddled with sky-high expectations from even before he was born. His sire won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, and his dam produced the Grade I stakes winners Chester House, Honest Lady and Chiselling.

After lagging in his first three starts, Empire Maker has been fitted with blinkers for today's race. Frankel and the colt's jockey, Jerry Bailey, said blinkers, which limit a horse's range of vision, will sharpen Empire Maker's attention and speed out of the gate.

"I can probably stay a little closer to Trust N Luck, which will be essential in this race," Bailey said.

Of Empire Maker, Bailey said: "He's a grand-looking horse. He's got the pedigree. He's had enough races. He doesn't have any excuses for this race."

Except his trainer's, you know, the one about Empire Maker's not being able to beat Trust N Luck.

Those two colts share top billing in the Florida Derby, but five others carry their connections' hopes for advancement along the Kentucky Derby trail. Indy Dancer and Senor Swinger may have the most potential for success in the spring classics, but their late-speed tactics may be compromised today over a racing strip that often favors speed.

The Florida Derby is the weekend's only Grade I stakes for 3-year-olds, but it's not the only significant race. It may not even be the most significant.

The Grade II San Felipe Stakes tomorrow at Santa Anita Park showcases several of California's top young horses, and California is knee-deep in Kentucky Derby prospects. Domestic Dispute, Man Among Men, Atswhatimtalknbout and even Ten Cents A Shine have at least as much potential as the horses in the Florida Derby.

The Tampa Bay Derby and the Grade III Gotham Stakes also take place tomorrow. Cherokee's Boy, the Bowie colt, drew the disadvantageous outside post in the 11-horse Gotham.

The race is usually a one-mile affair around one turn over Aqueduct's longer outer dirt track. But because of inclement weather, the outer track hasn't opened, forcing the race onto the winterized inner track at 1 mile and 70 yards around two turns.

Cherokee's Boy has won three straight, but he has yet to win a stakes against anything but fellow Maryland-breds. His trainer, Gary Capuano, said Cherokee's Boy has run with good horses; now it's time to show he can beat good horses.

Meanwhile, John Ward Jr., trainer of Sky Mesa, has officially removed the undefeated colt from Kentucky Derby consideration because of a slow-healing heel bruise. Ward said Sky Mesa will be pointed to the Belmont.

And Toccet, the Laurel colt and onetime leading Derby prospect, has spent the past week at Adena Springs in Ocala, Fla., exercising on a treadmill in the water. Dan Borislow, Toccet's owner, said the colt will spend a few more days in Florida before returning to John Scanlan's barn at Laurel Park for a resumption of serious training.

The goal for Toccet, slowed by a foot bruise, remains the Derby Trial and Preakness Stakes, Borislow said.

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