04/10/2003 12:00AM

To Bailey, Empire Maker is his Triple threat


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Jerry Bailey traveled the country this winter seeking the perfect Kentucky Derby mount. In reality, Bailey had found his ideal Derby companion last fall.

That's when he was first introduced to Empire Maker, a well-bred, good-looking colt from the connections of Juddmonte Farms and trainer Bobby Frankel. With a strong showing in Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial, Empire Maker will head to Louisville as the favorite for the May 3 Kentucky Derby.

While Empire Maker did not impress the skeptics before his emphatic victory in last month's Florida Derby, he had Bailey dreaming big from the first time he sat on him in a workout last September at Belmont Park.

"Ever since I got on this horse, not only did I think he could win the Derby, but I thought, if luck goes our way, that all three were possible," Bailey said, referring also to the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, which along with the Derby make up racing's Triple Crown. "The potential is there, barring any bad luck and any unforeseen weird things happening, that he could be very special."

Bailey, a six-time Eclipse Award winner, understands a lot has to go right just to win one Triple Crown race, let alone all three. In fact, just getting to the Derby can sometimes be daunting, as the connections of Vindication, last year's juvenile champion, Sky Mesa, and Toccet learned this year.

That is why Bailey made several cross-country trips this winter to ride the likes of Domestic Dispute, Composure, and Ten Cents a Shine in key Kentucky Derby preps at Santa Anita and Gulfstream. He was also named to ride Vindication, but the horse was injured and removed from the Triple Crown trail before Bailey got the chance.

"I learned a long time ago that early in the year you take what comes your way and say thank you," Bailey, 45, said, "and then things have a way of sorting themselves out as it goes."

During a four-year period in the early 1990's, things sorted themselves out nicely for Bailey, who won the Kentucky Derby aboard Sea Hero (1993) and Grindstone (1996), was second aboard Tejano Run (1995), and third aboard Blumin Affair (1994). Since then, however, he has hardly had a mount worth remembering, his best finish being a fifth aboard Cape Town in 1998.

When Bailey extols the virtues of Empire Maker, he describes an unusual physical specimen with speed and stamina who has got "all the physical attributes." If there's a flaw, it is Empire Maker's tendency to act up when loading into the starting gate. It was a problem before the Remsen and again, but only slightly, before the Florida Derby.

"That's the only thing he's done wrong, but a lot of horses do that wrong, and the more they race, it becomes less of an issue," Bailey said.

After a second-place finish in the Sham Stakes on Feb. 7 at Santa Anita, Empire Maker was equipped with blinkers for the Florida Derby. Not only did they help get Empire Maker into the race from the outset, they made him more focused.

"I think he was going to learn a lot and improve a lot anyway, but I do think the blinkers hastened it," Bailey said.

Before getting to Louisville, Bailey must first safely guide Empire Maker once around Aqueduct's nine-furlong oval in Saturday's Wood Memorial. In the Wood, Bailey will have to walk the fine line of trying to win while not taking so much out of his horse that he will be compromised in the Kentucky Derby.

"I'm out there to try and win - it's $750,000 - but I'm not going to beat him to death, hopefully, to do that," Bailey said. "I don't think I'll have to. I think this horse can win, still improve a little bit, but not jump up and run the race of his life, which we want three weeks from that day."