03/13/2003 12:00AM

Blue-blooded colt has to step it up

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - Don't worry if you're feeling more confused than ever about Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, because you're not alone.

Right now it seems as though it's Bobby Frankel's world and we're just living in it. A few days after he took Peace Rules out of mothballs to win on the dirt for the first time, beating Kafwain and Badge of Silver no less, he was talking about the Lexington and the Preakness as possible next objectives for Peace Rules.

Frankel can afford to explore the road not taken to Louisville, because even though Peace Rules is now a graded stakes winner on turf and dirt, also residing in his barn is the mighty Empire Maker. (Cue the trumpets: da-da-da-DAAH!)

In a full-page advertisement for Juddmonte Farms, on the page adjacent to Friday's Derby Watch, there is a big picture of Empire Maker, the world's worst-kept secret right from the start, shown winning last fall's maiden debut at 2-5. The text proclaims the half-brother to Chester House (and several other graded stakes winners) ". . . the latest in a growing line of all-stars . . ."

Pretty heady stuff for a colt who, after losses at 7-5 and 2-5 in two stakes tries, remains a riddle wrapped up in an enigma and yet is somehow ranked No. 2 on the latest Derby Watch.

Rarely are horseplayers as divided in their opinion about a big-name horse as they are about Empire Maker.

The believers hear those regal trumpets in the background whenever Empire Maker is mentioned. The signs are all there, they say: Blue blood flowing through his veins, a trainer and jockey dominating the Eclipse Awards like nobody's business, and Beyer Figures that, win or lose, have improved a few lengths with each trip to the post.

The skeptics see a 3-year-old who in mid-March is a maiden winner, no more and no less.

For Empire Maker, it is put-up or shut-up time to at least some degree in Saturday's Florida Derby. Frankel says the colt is the greatest thing since sliced bread and is working gangbusters. The blinkers are on, and we all saw how the hood transformed the Frankel-trained Milwaukee Brew from plodder to presser in the Big Cap. What's more, Empire Maker has already been the nine-furlong distance of the Florida Derby twice.

Empire Maker doesn't have to win to cement his lofty position near the top of the Derby charts. After all, if the Florida Derby were a handicap he would be getting plenty of weight from the faster and more seasoned Trust N Luck.

Visit your local replay monitor and watch Trust N Luck explode after changing leads in the stretch of the Fountain of Youth, and there is no way to play Empire Maker with any confidence in the Florida Derby. Besides being talented, Trust N Luck is fast and loose Saturday as the lone speed from the rail on a track that has carried speed all winter.

Ah, but the Kentucky Derby . . . now that could be another story. But given his pedigree and his trainer's expertise with grass horses, Empire Maker could just as likely be the winner of the 2004 Arlington Million as this year's Derby hero. We get a clue Saturday.

Sunday's Gotham at Aqueduct is a Kentucky Derby prep of another color. In fact, calling it a Derby prep is a misnomer at this point, because none of the 20 or so horses still under consideration as of Thursday is among the top 25 on Derby Watch.

This is a far cry from last year, when Hopeful runner-up Mayakovsky won at 3-5 over Remsen winner Saarland, producing a puny $7.50 exacta (for $2) in a field of seven.

With so many potential starters, and a very real possibility the race will be split, it's impossible to say anything definitive about the Gotham as of this writing. But here is a word of advice: Don't underestimate any horse who ships in from Laurel.

There are no graded stakes winners scheduled to compete in the race, but the two top representatives from Maryland, Cherokee's Boy and Gimmeawink, have won restricted and ungraded stakes, and are by no means outclassed by the locals.

Cherokee's Boy has run eight Beyer Figures of a remarkably consistent nature since last fall. Gimmeawink shows a pattern of improvement as he has stretched out: Beyers of 76 and 77 winning short sprints, an 87 at seven furlongs, and a 98 winning the two-turn Miracle Wood last time out.

Maryland-based horses have more than held their own at Aqueduct this winter, several at nice prices. Crossing Point wired the Paumonok Handicap at a chalky 3-5. But Ladyecho won the Dearly Precious at 9-2, and recent winners from Laurel in non-stakes races include Balmy ($18.20) and The Maccabee ($19.20). There have been several maiden graduates as well.