Strong effort needed to find Empire Maker's weak points

Though Wood comes first, Triple Crown talk grows

Horse Racing

April 11, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- With Empire Maker, the heavy favorite in the Wood Memorial Stakes tomorrow at Aqueduct and the leader among Kentucky Derby contenders, it has come down to this: Pick him apart trying to find the flaws.

Jerry Bailey, the Hall of Fame jockey who rides him, said the only unanswered question he has is how Empire Maker will handle the boisterous crowd and festivities at the Kentucky Derby. But really, Bailey said, he's not very worried about that.

Bobby Frankel, the Hall of Famer who trains Empire Maker, said that, well, the horse has never trained over a muddy track, so if Aqueduct comes up muddy tomorrow that's a concern. But really, Frankel said, he's not very concerned about that.

If those are the only flaws the two horsemen most familiar with Empire Maker can come up with, then what are his strengths?

"Everything right now," Frankel said. "All of the above."

Frankel attended the post position draw yesterday for the Wood, at which Empire Maker drew post No. 8 in a field of eight and was tabbed the 3-5 favorite. At about the same time at Kentucky's Keeneland, Frankel-trained Peace Rules drew post No. 2 and the 7-5 favorite's role for the Blue Grass Stakes.

Frankel might just train the two best 3-year-olds, and already some are wondering whether they might run one-two at Churchill Downs. First, though, there's the little matter of 1 1/8 miles tomorrow around ovals in Kentucky and New York.

Frankel said he's slightly concerned about Peace Rules. The colt ran so powerfully in the Louisiana Derby five weeks ago that he might regress tomorrow, the trainer said.

He doesn't have that worry about Empire Maker, despite his 9 3/4 -length victory four weeks ago in the Florida Derby. That overpowering win shot the regally bred colt to No. 1 on everybody's Kentucky Derby depth chart.

"It wasn't his best effort," Frankel said of Empire Maker's impressive win. "He might have been goofing off winning by 10 that day.

"I think he's got some really good races still in him, some really top races. I think he's just going to improve off racing, this horse. He's just learning how to run."

Frankel said initially after the Florida Derby that he would train Empire Maker up to the Kentucky classic. A couple of days later, he changed his mind and said he'd run the colt in the Wood.

"I didn't want to buck the trend, No. 1," Frankel said, referring to the normal practice of running a Derby horse at least once in April. "No. 2, I didn't want to bring him back off a long layoff and run too big a race and then [regress] off that.

"If the Kentucky Derby was the only race I was going for, I would definitely not run him in this race. But since I'm planning to run him in all three, I wanted him to get into a routine of steady races."

"All three," of course, are the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont -- the Triple Crown. No horse has won all three since Affirmed in 1978.

The task is monumental. Yet none other than Bailey, a six-time Eclipse Award-winner and two-time Kentucky Derby winner, believes Empire Maker could be the one to do it. Bailey has ridden the colt in all four of his races -- two last year as a 2-year-old and two this year.

"I've thought all along that he had the most potential of any 3-year-old I've ever been on, or 2-year-old at that stage," Bailey said. "Ever since I got on this horse, I thought he could not only win the Derby, but he's also the kind of horse that, if luck goes your way, could even win all three of them."

Empire Maker has as potent a combination of breeding and human connections (Frankel and Bailey) as any young horse has had in years.

"You know, I've been in this business a long time, and almost everything does have to go right," Bailey said. "But he's got all the physical attributes. And I think he's got the mental makeup; he's growing up already.

"Bobby [Frankel] obviously doesn't make any mistakes. I don't think I'm going to make too many mistakes. So, the potential is there, barring bad luck and any unforeseen weird things happening, that he could be very special."

Wood Memorial

Where: Aqueduct, New York

When: Tomorrow, 4:15 p.m.

Grade: I

Purse: $750,000.

Distance: 1 1/8 miles.

TV: ESPN (live), 3:30 p.m.; Ch. 11 (tape), 4:30 p.m., with Blue Grass Stakes (live) and Arkansas Derby (live).

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