Wood win by `Empire' primes him for Derby

Victory margin is modest, but colt isn't pushed hard

April 13, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - After winning the Wood Memorial Stakes yesterday at Aqueduct with Empire Maker, trainer Bobby Frankel ducked into an out-of-the way office to watch the Blue Grass Stakes on TV. It may be the last peace and quiet Frankel gets for weeks.

The Hall of Fame trainer conditions the horses who almost certainly, barring illness or injury, will be the favorite and second favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Empire Maker, the 1-2 favorite in the $750,000 Wood, won by a half length. Peace Rules, the 3-5 favorite in the $750,000 Blue Grass, won by 3 1/2 lengths.

"I'm in a good spot," Frankel said. "But we've got to get there, and they've still got to run around the racetrack. Nothing's ever a cinch."

Empire Maker has become about as close to a cinch as there is. In five races he has begun to fulfill the lofty expectations piled upon him since birth.

Regally bred, trained and ridden by Hall of Famers, the lanky colt has shown he can win by 9 3/4 lengths, as he did last month in the Florida Derby, or by a half length, as he did in the Wood when hardly pressed by his jockey, Jerry Bailey.

"I did just enough to stay in front of the other horse," Bailey said. "I wanted to save something for Louisville."

Did he?

"Oh, yes, I did," he said. "Very definitely."

The Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, will take place May 3 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. The Preakness will be two weeks later at Pimlico Race Course.

Empire Maker entered the Wood after his overpowering performance in the Florida Derby. Frankel and Bailey talked all week about how they wanted to win the Wood but not drain the horse for the Derby. Frankel was also concerned about Empire Maker's racing for the first time in the mud.

After rain all week, the sun came out yesterday about noon. Still, the track was muddy by the 4:15 p.m. post time.

Breaking from the eighth post in an eight-horse field, Empire Maker hustled out of the gate, and Bailey promptly forced their way toward the rail. New York Hero and Funny Cide led into the first turn. Empire Maker was right behind in third.

Bailey swung Empire Maker wide around the far turn, and the cruising colt surged into the lead at the head of the stretch. New York Hero began to fade, but Funny Cide battled to the wire.

It looked as if Empire Maker would pull away, but Funny Cide raced stubbornly along the rail. Bailey flicked his whip lightly at Empire Maker. That was enough to ensure victory and, in Bailey's mind, preserve the horse for the Kentucky Derby.

"I didn't want him opening up four, five, six lengths," Bailey said. "Things couldn't have worked out better."

Frankel agreed. Empire Maker has balked at entering the starting gate and has acted up slightly in the paddock. He has also broken sluggishly.

But this, Frankel said, was the best Empire Maker has acted in the paddock, the easiest he has entered the starting gate and the quickest he has broken from the gate.

"He's a young horse; he's still learning," Frankel said. "He's learning fast."

Empire Maker completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute, 48.70 seconds. He paid $3.10 to win and headed an $11.40 exacta with Funny Cide. The Barclay Tagg-trainee was the bettors' second choice at 5-1.

Kissin Saint at 16-1 closed for third. New York Hero, Senor Swinger, Indy Dancer, Sky Soldier and Spite the Devil completed the order of finish. The trifecta paid $83.50, the superfecta $242.

Also at Aqueduct, Congaree reaffirmed his status as one of the top older horses in the country by cruising to a 3 1/2 -length victory in the Grade I, $350,000 Carter Handicap.

Trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Gary Stevens, Congaree paid $3.60 to win as the 4-5 favorite. He raced the seven furlongs in 1:21.48. Aldebaran finished second, Peeping Tom third.

Halo Homewrecker captured the Grade III, $150,000 Bay Shore Stakes by one length in 1:23.19 for seven furlongs. The Laurel-based Deadline finished eighth.

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