Empire Maker shoots to head of his class

Florida Derby showing makes him colt to beat in May 3 Kentucky classic

Horse Racing

March 22, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

It took until mid-March, but finally a clear favorite for the Kentucky Derby has emerged.

Empire Maker's overpowering victory in the Florida Derby last Saturday was by far the most impressive performance by a 3-year-old this year. With his impeccable breeding and Hall of Fame connections, the colt might not only win the Kentucky Derby, the country's top race, but also capture the Triple Crown, racing's most elusive.

Immediately after Empire Maker cruised to a 9 3/4 -length victory in the Florida Derby, setting a record for greatest winning margin, his trainer, Bobby Frankel, said he might not race again until the Kentucky Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs.

By the next day, Frankel had changed his mind. He said Empire Maker would run in the Wood Memorial Stakes on April 12 at Aqueduct, in part as preparation for the Triple Crown's rigorous schedule of three races in five weeks.

Empire Maker should only get stronger. The Florida Derby was just his fourth race. And he was overpowering despite not changing leads until a stride or two before the wire. He ran nearly the entire stretch leading with his left leg - after failing to switch to his right (and summoning fresh muscles) at the head of the stretch.

Empire Maker's performance caught the eye of Ron Ellis, trainer of Atswhatimtalknbout, whose charging second in the San Felipe Stakes last weekend bolstered his Derby prospects.

"That horse is awesome," Ellis said of Empire Maker. "He's the one true horse that I think will benefit from a mile and a quarter [the Derby distance]. I've always felt the same way about my horse, that a mile and a quarter is going to really be to his benefit, compared to most of these horses that really aren't bred to go much over a mile and a sixteenth."

Derby watchers should learn today whether the highly regarded Lion Tamer can succeed at a distance in the 1 1/8 -mile Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park (4-5 p.m., ESPN2). The Todd Pletcher-trainee has won three straight at six and seven furlongs with a devastating combination of early speed and late power.

"The way this horse has trained, he's never given me a concern to think that he wouldn't stretch out," Pletcher said. "But, you know, until they do it, you never know for sure."

The gelding Buddy Gil brought attention to Maryland with his upset victory in the San Felipe and scheduled appearance in the upcoming Santa Anita Derby. His sire, Eastern Echo, stands at Shamrock Farms in Woodbine.

Meanwhile, Dan Borislow, who declared last week that Toccet was off the Derby trail, said this week that his Laurel-based colt would miss the entire Triple Crown. Borislow, who lives in South Florida, said Toccet would spend 30 days walking and another 30 days exercising on an aqua treadmill at a farm near Ocala, Fla.

Toccet has been hampered by ankle problems and a bruised foot. Now, Borislow said, it's a "series of little things" that could be treated, but will be allowed to heal naturally.

The leading Derby prospects early this year - Vindication, Sky Mesa and Toccet - have all succumbed to injury. This week, a top 3-year-old filly, Composure, was retired. Composure might have contested the Derby for trainer Bob Baffert, but she suffered a hairline fracture of a sesamoid bone in her right foreleg.

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