Empire Maker is favorite

Posted: Friday, May 02, 2003

LOUISVILLE, Ky. The strongest Kentucky Derby favorite in 11 years might have an Achilles' heel.

Empire Maker's bruised foot was again the focus at Churchill Downs, two days before the race. Trainer Bobby Frankel proclaimed his 6-5 favorite 100 percent'' after a jog Thursday morning, but opposing trainer Ron Ellis said, It's not an ideal situation.''

It would be sad for the race to lose the big favorite, the drawing card,'' said Ellis, who trains 12-1 choice Atswhatimtalknbout. A lot of people are looking forward to him running. I know they think he's a superstar. The way he's run, he could be.''

The way Empire Maker worked out with a special three-quarter shoe on his bruised right front foot reaffirmed Frankel's belief that his colt is ready to handle 16 challengers in the 1 1/4-mile Derby on Saturday.

It's as good as he's ever jogged. No big deal,'' said Frankel, who also trains 8-1 co-third choice Peace Rules. These things are an everyday occurrence for me and every other trainer.''

The bruise was discovered after Empire Maker won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 12, a victory that established him as the top 3-year-old.

News of the injury, however, didn't come out until Tuesday, after Empire Maker returned from a morning gallop. The colt could have hurt the inside part of his hoof several ways, including stepping awkwardly on a stone on the way to the track or on the racing surface.

Veterinarian Ken Reed has treated the bruise with a moist, warm wrap to help reduce swelling and has soaked the foot in warm water and Epsom salts. Part of the shoe was cut away below the bruise to help relieve pressure and allow the hoof to absorb more liquid while soaking.

Empire Maker, owned by Juddmonte Farms, will be racing in the three-quarter shoe for the first time.

The horse took Wednesday off, only walking inside Frankel's barn. But the son of 1990 Derby winner Unbridled was back on the track Thursday.

He looked fine, but he's never been a great jogger,'' Frankel said. He's got those long legs and he doesn't fire them up and down like pistons. He's a better galloper than jogger.''

A 1 1/2-mile gallop Friday is next, followed by a Derby morning gallop leading up to the 6:04 p.m. post time. A gallop should be a better indication of how Empire Maker handles the track.

I've had horses with bruises that are gone in a day and horses with bruises that take a month,'' Ellis said.

Bruise or no bruise, Empire Maker faces a tough task trying to give Frankel his first Derby victory. Only one favorite has won the race in the last 23 years: Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.

Two-time Derby winning trainer Nick Zito, who doesn't have a horse in the race, says history could work against Empire Maker.

Over the years,'' he said, there's been so much luck involved that if you do make a little mistake, it's hard to recover.''

D. Wayne Lukas, who sends out long shots Scrimshaw and Ten Cents a Shine in his quest for a fifth Derby win, said the injury can't be a positive in any way, shape or form.''

Trainers can scratch a horse from the Derby as late as 15 minutes before the preceding race. After that, only racing officials can pull a horse.

Once Empire Maker leaves from the No. 12 post with Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey aboard, nobody not even Frankel has any idea if the bruise will affect the colt's performance.

I wish it was that easy to predict they're going to run good every time,'' Frankel said. But it's not the nature of the game. Until he proves he's a Secretariat or Seattle Slew or one of those, you're always eligible to run a bad race.''

Empire Maker is the biggest Derby favorite since Arazi was 6-5 in the morning line before finishing eighth in 1992. After impressive wins in the Florida Derby and Wood, Empire Maker was already being touted as a Triple Crown threat, in part because of his regal pedigree and Hall of Fame connections.

But Frankel balked when asked what separates Empire Maker from the other 3-year-olds.

Let him do the talking,'' the trainer said. I can brag all I want about a horse. I've been disappointed so much.''

Frankel was 0-for-38 in Breeders' Cup races before Squirtle Squirt won the 2001 BC Sprint. And he's 0-for-7 in Triple Crown races, but has three seconds: Aptitude in the 2000 Derby and Belmont Stakes, and Medaglia d'Oro in the 2002 Belmont.

In Empire Maker and Peace Rules, though, Frankel has one of the strongest Derby hands ever.

If Empire Maker fails to come through, it might not be the bruised foot that beats him. It might be Peace Rules, the Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass Stakes winner.

Peace Rules couldn't look any better,'' Frankel said, and he's never taken a backward step.''

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