12/02/2002 1:00AM

Blame false prophets of the press


NEW YORK - Everyone who has written more than two words on Thoroughbred racing has, at one time or another, been guilty of fueling the "hype machine," myself included. In fact, some would say I'm one of the more frequent offenders. Okay. Where do I plea bargain?

That said, lately it seems like there is something very wrong with the way the hype machine is functioning. Although it has been given little to run on, the hype machine seems like it's running on full throttle.

Case in point: Empire Maker.

The hyperbole that has surrounded the 2-year-old Empire Marker this fall has been nothing short of extraordinary. Empire Maker was heralded as the second coming since well before he made his debut closing day of the Belmont Park fall meet. Because he was entered and scratched a few times before he finally did make his first start, that only seemed to elevate expectations, and when Empire Maker did finally compete, he was an incredible 2-5 against 12 opponents.

Even more incredible was the celebration that ensued after Empire Maker won that debut. In Las Vegas, he instantly became one of the favorites for the 2003 Kentucky Derby. It was as if the new emperor had been located.

Why all the fuss? There were rumors that Empire Maker had worked favorably against Medaglia d'Oro, also a member of trainer Bobby Frankel's barn, one of the best 3-year-olds of the year, and winner of the Travers. This kind of talk is high-test gas for the hype machine, but guarantees very little.

For example, last winter, trainer H. James Bond had two 3-year-olds entered to make their debuts at Gulfstream Park on the Donn Handicap undercard. The word around the track was if the one in the first race ran well, then you could bet out on the one in the fourth race, because the one in the fourth race had consistently outworked the one in the opener. The one in the opener impressed, winning by more than four lengths in strong time. The one in the fourth lost, something that would become habitual. The one in the opener was named Buddha, who was good enough to win the Wood Memorial over Medaglia d'Oro in only the third start of a career that, regrettably, would never see another start because of injuries. The one in the fourth was Harbor Star. Don't know him? There's a good reason why. He hasn't done a thing.

What we did know about Empire Maker, besides having a great trainer and great pedigree, is that he drew clear in the final furlong of that one-mile maiden race at Belmont. But, he only ran fast enough to earn an 84 Beyer Speed Figure, which is decent, but far from special. And, the colt Empire Maker beat that day, Blue Skies Ahead, got thumped for the second time since that race last Saturday at Aqueduct, and is now 0 for 7. In fact, of the 12 opponents Empire Maker beat in his debut, none has since won in New York.

Nevertheless, despite facing faster and more seasoned opposition in Saturday's Remsen at Aqueduct, Empire Maker was the 7-5 favorite. He did bobble a bit at the start, but that was not nearly enough of an excuse to explain his 5 1/2-length defeat. Empire Maker was simply outrun by horses that, at least right now, are better and faster, and who were not intimidated by the hype.

This is not to say that Empire Maker is a bum, or that he may not yet turn out to be a good horse. You cannot bury a horse after only two starts, although by two starts, true greatness has usually already surfaced. But it illustrates how the hype machine seems to be malfunctioning.

So, the hype machine may now turn its attention to Soto, who remained undefeated winning Saturday's Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes for 2-year-olds at Churchill Downs.

Actually, it may have already begun. It will be asked, rhetorically, how good is Soto to now be 3 for 3 on dirt as a 2-year-old when his trainer, Michael Dickinson, is known for his work with older grass horses? This is a point that Dickinson himself alluded to after the Kentucky Jockey Club.

Well, Soto is already a nice horse, and he may indeed prove to be a good one. But, the hype machine won't account for the fact that the speed in the Kentucky Jockey Club totally collapsed, resulting in a very slow finish, and setting it up perfectly for a stretch runner like Soto. The hype machine won't account for the fact that runner-up Ten Cents a Shine may be every bit the equal of Soto considering he was jumping in class off a successful debut. And, it won't account for the fact that Most Feared, who finished third, may well have won if he hadn't been blocked from the top of the stretch to inside the eighth pole.

Maybe the hype machine needs a tune-up.