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Updated on 09/17/2011 11:24AM
All systems go for favorite
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Empire Maker returned to the track at Churchill Downs on Thursday morning for a jog, which means he missed only one day of training because of a bruise to his right front hoof at mid-week. The setback, however, has raised palpable doubts about him on the eve of Saturday's 129th Kentucky Derby.
Empire Maker, though still the favorite, will likely be a higher price than if his week had gone without incident. If he is standing in the winner's circle at 6:15 Saturday evening, the tote board behind him might be flashing one of the great overlay prices of Derby history. If he is defeated, however, there will be questions as to whether the foot contributed to the loss, or if the hype this spring was truly merited.
Bobby Frankel, Empire Maker's trainer, Thursday morning said Empire Maker was "perfect."
"He's fine," Frankel said after Empire Maker took one lap around the track with exercise rider Jose Cuevas around 7 a.m. "He will gallop on Friday. He will gallop even better than he jogs. I took him out late so everybody could see him. I didn't take him out at 3 in the morning."
Frankel initially had said he would walk Empire Maker again on Thursday after walking him on Wednesday. But he changed his mind Thursday morning because he believed Empire Maker had progressed.
"He looked fine, so we jogged him," Frankel said.
Empire Maker is the 8-5 favorite on the line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form national handicapper. Frankel said he believed the foot bruise might make some gamblers apprehensive Saturday.
"I think you will get 8-5 instead of 6-5," he said.
A field of 17 is entered in the Derby. Frankel, in search of his first Derby victory, has both Empire Maker and Peace Rules. Collectively, they have won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, and Wood Memorial this spring. Peace Rules is eligible for a $1 million bonus for any horse who can win both the Louisiana Derby and Kentucky Derby.
With 17 runners, the Derby purse will be $1,115,200, with $815,200 to the winner.
Because of the large field, an auxiliary gate will be used. Fourteen horses are in the main gate, with the remaining three - including second choice Ten Most Wanted, the Illinois Derby winner - in the adjacent auxiliary gate.
All starters carry 126 pounds. There is only one equipment change - Atswhatimtalknbout races with blinkers on.
The Derby will be shown live on NBC, in a 90-minute telecast beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern. Post time for the Derby is 6:04 p.m. It is the 10th race on a 12-race card, and understandably is the focal point of the day, but the supporting card is outstanding, with high-quality fields in races like the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, Humana Distaff, and Churchill Downs Handicap.
The National Weather Service is predicting a gorgeous day on Saturday, with a high of 70 degrees. Severe thunderstorms were forecast for this area Thursday night, with as much as half an inch of rain predicted. But the storms were forecast to end by late Friday morning. A crowd of more than 140,000 is expected.
Empire Maker, who will be ridden by Jerry Bailey, is the acknowledged horse to beat. He has run fast times, has given the appearance of dominating his opponents in his last two starts, has the nation's reigning champion trainer and jockey in his corner, and is he is one of the handful of horses in this race who appear to be genuinely able to handle the Derby's 1 1/4 miles. Empire Maker, who was bred and is owned by the Juddmonte Farms of Prince Khalid Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, is a son of Unbridled, who won the Derby in 1990.
Empire Maker also figures to get a good trip. He has what Frankel calls a "high cruising speed," and should be able to stalk what figures to be a moderate early pace.
Peace Rules should be part of that pace. "If they don't go, I'll go," Frankel said.
The most likely front-runner is Indian Express, who will seek to give trainer Bob Baffert his fourth Derby victory in the past seven years. Indian Express ran a remarkable race in the Santa Anita Derby. He pressed a hot pace, put away a pace rival who eventually finished last, and narrowly lost in the final strides to Buddy Gil.
Buddy Gil's victory in the Santa Anita Derby was his third straight, all since moving to the barn of trainer Jeff Mullins. He also figures to be lurking behind the early leaders during the first part of the race. He and Funny Cide are the only two geldings in the race.
Atswhatimtalknbout, who was fourth as the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby, is racing in blinkers for the first time after turning in a sharp work with blinkers last Sunday morning. He will be attempting to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without having raced at age 2.
"He has gained a lot of weight since his last race. He has really thrived here," said his trainer, Ron Ellis.
Atswhatimtalknbout is owned in part by Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Gary Marshall, and Gary Ross, who two months ago purchased a minority interest in the colt from majority owner B. Wayne Hughes.
Ten Most Wanted has become the hot horse this week. He is trying to follow in the footsteps of War Emblem, who last year parlayed a victory in the Illinois Derby to a win here. He has a late-running style that should be effective against rivals who might find the final furlong beyond their range.
"All of a sudden he's getting it all together," said Wally Dollase, who trains and co-owns Ten Most Wanted.
Funny Cide, who figures to be pressing the early pace, was a close second to Empire Maker in the Wood Memorial. He also finished third while chasing Peace Rules in the Louisiana Derby.
Brancusi has made significant progress in recent weeks. He comes off a second-place finish in the Blue Grass, and has been lost in the shuffle this week, having trained until Thursday at Keeneland, 72 miles away. He was sent by van to Churchill on Thursday afternoon.
Sir Cherokee was a late-running winner of the Arkansas Derby. The Kentucky Derby pace does not figure to be as fast, but he should be picking off horses late. He turned in two good efforts at this track last fall. Sir Cherokee has been based at the nearby Trackside training center. He will come to Churchill the morning of the race.
The rest in the field should be much longer prices.
Supah Blitz will be the first horse loaded into the starting gate. He will try to make Rosemary Homeister Jr. the first female jockey to win the Derby. She is the fifth woman to ride in the race.
Offlee Wild was third in the Blue Grass, and he won the Holy Bull earlier this year. He owns a win and a second in two prior starts at Churchill.
Outta Here is the only horse in the race to have competed at the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles. He was fourth in the United Arab Emirates Derby on March 29 in his only previous start this year.
Lone Star Sky finished fourth in the Illinois Derby and Louisiana Derby in his last two starts. He was a stakes winner in his lone start at Churchill last summer.
Scrimshaw is trying to follow in the footsteps of Charismatic and win the Derby for trainer D. Wayne Lukas and owners Bob and Beverly Lewis after having won the Coolmore Lexington Stakes two weeks ago. Lukas also trains the overmatched longshot Ten Cents a Shine, who was beaten 43 1/4 lengths in the Blue Grass and worked poorly this week.
Eye of the Tiger finished second to Scrimshaw in the Lexington. That was his first start around two turns. The Derby distance seems beyond his range.
Domestic Dispute, third in the Lexington, was sold last weekend by Baffert and owner Gary Garber. Considering Baffert's love affair with the Derby, it does not inspire confidence that he would let the colt slip from his grasp.