`Empire,' injuries cut Derby field

With just a week to go, only 14 entries definite

Horse Racing

April 26, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

When entries are submitted Wednesday for the 129th Kentucky Derby, fewer than the maximum 20 horses will be entered for only the second time in the past five years.

At least that's how the field looks today, one week before the Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Fourteen horses are definite, barring illness or injury, and four are possible.

Usually, the Derby attracts far more horses than reasonably should run. The glamour of the event lures owners with unrealistic expectations. This year, however, the presence of an overwhelming favorite and a plethora of injuries have severely cut into the field.

One could argue that the 3-year-olds who won't run in the Derby are a stronger group than the ones who will. Gary West, who covers racing for the Dallas Morning News, contends that the "real" Kentucky Derby will be run this year in August - in the form of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

The Derby, however, is the Derby, whether a dozen or 20 horses start. And this year, an extremely talented 3-year-old named Empire Maker graces the field. He might enter the starting gate at odds right at or near even money.

His trainer, Bobby Frankel, is a member of the Hall of Fame and has won four Eclipse Awards as top trainer, including the past three in a row. But he has never won a Triple Crown race.

"This is the one race I definitely want to win," he said of the Derby. "It's my best shot ever. If I don't win it this time, I'll probably never win it."

Empire Maker has raced only five times. He has won three, including his last two, the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial Stakes. Few horses have ever entered the Derby with the distance experience of Empire Maker. Four of his five races have been at 1 1/8 miles. The other was one mile.

"I don't think he's reached his potential yet," Frankel said. "I think maybe one day he will be a great horse, but he has to show it. He has to do the talking, not me."

Asked to assess the competition, Frankel said: "My other horse," referring to Peace Rules. "I really honestly believe he's the second-best horse going into the race. I've got a feeling he'll make the lead turning for home, and it'll be tough running by him. He's a very, very good horse."

In addition to the dozen ranked above, these two horses are definite for the Derby (trainer, last race in parentheses): Outta Here (Bill Currin; fourth, UAE Derby) and Supah Blitz (Manny Tortora; second, Aventura Stakes).

These four are possible: Eye of the Tiger (Jerry Hollendorfer; second, Lexington Stakes), Lone Star Sky (Tom Amoss; fourth, Illinois Derby), Senor Swinger (Bob Baffert; fifth, Wood Memorial Stakes) and Ten Cents a Shine (D. Wayne Lukas; eighth, Blue Grass Stakes).

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