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CROWN OF EMPIRE IS THE GOAL FRANKEL HAS PREPARED DERBY FAVORITE FOR RUN AT TRIPLE.

Byline: Kevin Modesti Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In a display of the sort of big thinking that separates the great from the merely skilled, Bobby Frankel has prepared Empire Maker not only to win the trainer's first Kentucky Derby but to win thoroughbred racing's first Triple Crown in a quarter-century.

The colt with the problem hoof is scheduled to take the first 1 1/4-mile step in that grand journey today at Churchill Downs as the heavy favorite among 16 horses in the 129th Kentucky Derby.

``Bet at your own risk against him,'' Frankel said confidently Friday morning, shortly after Empire Maker fueled new questions about his physical and mental health by taking an abrupt right turn during an exercise gallop.

If he'd been preparing for a peak performance today, Frankel explained this week, he might not have given Empire Maker another prep race after the 9 3/4-length Florida Derby victory seven weeks ago that wowed fans nationwide. Frankel said he could have kept Empire Maker fit using workouts alone. He said it would have been a shortsighted approach.

After such a break from the rigors of racing, the Derby's expected exertion could have taken a toll in the May 17 Preakness Stakes and the June 7 Belmont Stakes.

And the layoff would have done nothing to steel Empire Maker for the uniquely compact Triple Crown schedule.

So Frankel ran the colt - owned by Saudi Arabian Prince Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms - in the Wood Memorial in New York three weeks ago and watched the horse and jockey Jerry Bailey do just enough to beat Funny Cide by half a length.

``If I was just going for the Derby, I would have just trained him to it,'' Frankel said. ``If you are going for all the races, you have to get him in a steady racing pattern.''

Now, at the 25th anniversary of Affirmed's Triple Crown sweep and the 30th anniversary of Secretariat's, Empire Maker has his chance to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner. Four horses in the past six years have won the Derby and the Preakness before failing in the Belmont. None of those horses was the Derby betting favorite.

Frankel, 61, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native and Pacific Palisades resident, a Racing Hall of Fame member and the nation's dominant trainer the past three seasons, never has won a Triple Crown race - let alone all three in a row. If he wins the Derby, he said, it would be the biggest development of his career. If he wins all three, he said, ``I could never win another race, (and) I'd go to sleep at night.''

Frankel also has owner Ed Gann's Peace Rules in the Derby. Some make Peace Rules the second choice in the race. But it's Empire Maker, a son of 1990 Derby winner Unbridled and the sensational Kentucky broodmare Toussaud, who has consumed Frankel during a trying week at Churchill Downs.

On Tuesday, the trainer revealed Empire Maker was being treated for a right-forefoot bruise apparently sustained in the Wood and aggravated in a workout here Sunday. On a veterinarian's advice, the colt was limited to walking Wednesday before returning to the track for a jog Thursday.

On Friday at 6:45 a.m., Empire Maker and exercise rider Jose Cuevas went out for a 1 1/4-mile gallop. As he passed the gap in the outside backstretch rail that leads to the barns, Empire Maker took a sharp right turn. Cuevas had to pull hard on the reins, and an outrider grabbed the colt. Straightened out, he galloped the rest of the way around the oval.

Frankel cheerfully dismissed speculation the misbehavior was an equine cry for help, saying such ``stunts'' are typical of the hot-blooded Toussaud's offspring.

``He did it the day before the Florida Derby, so that's a good thing. Actually, he did it before the Wood,'' Frankel said. ``He knows where he lives (at the barn). He knows where the gap is. He's not dumb. It's just part of the drama of this whole scene. Nothing comes easy. ... Don't be concerned about his soundness or anything.''

Empire Maker's antics were reminiscent of those that raised worries about Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 before that colt became the Derby's only winning favorite of the past 23 years.

The 15 potential upsetters - an injury forced Sir Cherokee's withdrawal Friday - include gutsy Santa Anita Derby winner Buddy Gil, swift Illinois Derby winner Ten Most Wanted, four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas' Scrimshaw and Ten Cents a Shine, three-time winner Bob Baffert's Indian Express and Frankel's Peace Rules. Atswhatimtalknbout, owned in part by Steven Spielberg and trained by Monroe High of North Hills product Ron Ellis, will try to make a big rally. Long-shot Supah Blitz would make Rosemary Homeister Jr. the first woman to ride a Derby winner.

If Peace Rules wins, Frankel said, ``I'd be happy, but I'd be a little disappointed, to be honest with you. Peace Rules is a hard tryer. But I think Empire Maker is a superior horse.''

Empire Maker held his own in team workouts with Frankel's older stars last summer and thus was the subject of hype even before he ran his first race in October. Since then, he has been pointed for the moment that arrives at 3:04 p.m. And for at least two moments to come.

KENTUCKY DERBY

Today

3:04 p.m.

TV: Ch. 4

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

(color) The antics of Kentucky Derby favorite Empire Maker during a gallop Friday were dismissed by trainer Bobby Frankel.

Ed Reinke/Associated Press
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1U6KY
Date:May 3, 2003
Words:931
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