01/28/2003 12:00AM

Breeding gives these six shot at Derby

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LAS VEGAS - It is time to focus attention on the 3-year-olds who will command the spotlight leading up to the Kentucky Derby, now just 14 weeks from Saturday. Vindication, last year's undefeated 2-year-old champion, is training brilliantly but his highly anticipated 3-year-old debut has yet to be determined. Below is an initial look at some of this year's top contenders by pedigree.

Empire Maker (Unbridled)

A colt whose physical appearance matches his fine pedigree, Empire Maker is perfectly suited to the Derby's 1 1/4-mile distance. His late sire, Unbridled, won the 1990 Derby, and produced a Derby winner (Grindstone) in his very first crop. Unbridled was one of the rare stamina influences (for dirt) in this country, and his premature death was a severe blow to racing. Fortunately there will be a few more crops by Unbridled.

Empire Maker is out of Toussaud, a multiple stakes winner who included the Gamely, American, and Wilshire handicaps among her victories after starting her career in Europe. As good as she was as a racehorse, Toussaud has become a stakes-producing machine. Bred to a variety of stallions, she has produced Grade 1 winners Chester House (Mr. Prospector), Honest Lady (Seattle Slew), and Chiselling (Woodman) and Grade 2 winner Decarchy (Distant View). After his easy maiden victory, Empire Maker finished third in the Grade 2, 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes after a poor start, and hasn't raced since.

With Unbridled as his sire, Empire Maker may turn out to be better than his siblings. He is scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the 1 1/8-mile Sham Stakes on Feb. 7 at Santa Anita as a prep to the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial.

He is Bobby Frankel's best chance to win the Kentucky Derby since Aptitude, who finished second to the imposing Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000.

Vindication (Seattle Slew)

By Seattle Slew out of a mare by Strawberry Road, Vindication gets a double dose of stamina, and should have no problem getting the Derby distance. While his female family has not produced anything near the quality of Vindication in recent generations, his third dam is a half-sister to Cornish Prince, one of 1964's better 2-year-olds who went on to become a successful stallion.

Sky Mesa (Pulpit)

Sky Mesa, the forgotten colt, is gearing up for his 3-year-old debut in Florida. Also undefeated, Sky Mesa won the Hopeful Stakes in only his second start, and an untimely injury prevented him from running in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Like Empire Maker, Sky Mesa is out of a multiple-stakes-winning mare who is also a prized broodmare. His dam, Caress (by Storm Cat), is a full sister to European group winner Bernstein and stakes winner Country Cat, and is a half-sister to Della Francesca, a Group 3 winner in Ireland who recently won in his second U.S. start. Caress is also a half-sister to stakes-placed Unify, and to Emmaus, the dam of Wiseman's Ferry. The class in Sky Mesa's female family runs deep. His fourth dam, Finance, is a half-sister to Buckpasser. A grandson of A.P. Indy from an impeccable female line, Sky Mesa should be able to get 1 1/4 miles.

Offlee Wild (Wild Again)

Dismissed at 27-1 in the Holy Bull Stakes, his victory was no fluke. By the very successful sire Wild Again, winner of the first Breeders' Cup Classic, he is out of the Seattle Slew mare Alvear, a half-sister to Dynaformer. This is the same female family as that of 2001Kentucky Derby winner, Monarchos. With Wild Again and Seattle Slew as his male influences, and being out of a strong Darby Dan female family, Offlee Wild is well bred for the classics.

Indy Dancer (A.P. Indy)

Undefeated in two races, he has been visually impressive rallying from off the pace to win going away in both starts. I have always believed it is only a matter of time before a son of A.P. Indy wins the Derby. This colt looks like the real deal and should make his stakes debut in either the Fountain of Youth or Risen Star Stakes. His dam, Dance With Grace (Mr. Prospector), was a minor stakes winner who is a full sister to Del Mar Futurity winner Souvenir Copy, one of last year's promising freshman sires, as well as English group winner Dance Sequence, Japanese group winner Shake Hand, and stakes-placed Gold Tribute, who was second in the Del Mar Futurity and third in the Champagne Stakes. Indy Dancer is a result of crossing a stamina influence (A.P. Indy) with a speed influence (Mr. Prospector). This breeding nick has also produced a champion 2-year-old filly, the late Tempera, as well as stakes winners Tomisue's Delight, Pulpit, With Ability, and Accelerator.

Seattle Hoofer (Seattle Slew)

Another undefeated son of the late Seattle Slew, Seattle Hoofer made jaws drop in a recent Fair Grounds allowance victory, where he exploded in the stretch after a troubled trip in only his second start. His dam, Star of Broadway (Broad Brush), developed quickly at 3, winning the Beaumont and Thelma Stakes. His second dam, Meteor Miner, is a half-sister to Grade 1 stakes winner A Phenomenon, Meteor Stage (the dam of champion 2-year-old filly Pleasant Stage, and stakes winners Full Stage, Colonial Play, and Stage Colony), and Spinaway Stakes winner Seattle Meteor. His fourth dam, Patelin, bred by George D. Widener, became a foundation mare for Buckland Farm. Seattle Hoofer is ideally bred for 1 1/4 miles.