03/17/2003 1:00AM

A colt of exceptional quality


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - Bigger than life.

Before Juddmonte Farm shipped the Unbridled colt out of Toussaud to Bobby Frankel in New York last summer, farm manager Garrett O'Rourke phoned the trainer and told him the winner of the 2003 Kentucky Derby was on his way.

Frankel knows about enthusiasm and usually prefers to see for himself.

It didn't take him long to appreciate O'Rourke's message. Empire Maker came with a superb pedigree. His dam produced four stakes winners, including Arlington Million winner Chester House; Honest Lady, winner of almost $900,000; Decarchy, winner of almost $500,000; and Chiselling, winner of the Secretariat Stakes.

Empire Maker's appearance was as attractive as his bloodlines, and he soon proved more than another pretty face. Frankel breezed him with the crack 3-year-old, Medaglia d'Oro, and Empire Maker held his own. After an easy victory in his debut, the trainer paid him a supreme compliment by asking him to beat seasoned young horses in the nine-furlong Remsen.

It was asking too much, of course, but Empire Maker acquitted himself honorably and gained important experience. His 3-year-old debut suggested the need for blinkers, and he traveled across the country to meet the East's best classic prospects in last Saturday's $1 million Florida Derby.

It all came together for Empire Maker, who gave the most impressive performance in this race since Gen. Duke beat Bold Ruler in world-record-equaling time in 1957. After stalking the pacesetting even-money favorite, Trust N Luck, to the head of the stretch under an outstanding ride by Jerry Bailey, Empire Maker dueled briefly and then accelerated past his opponent to win by 9 3/4 lengths.

His long trip to Florida, the unfamiliar racing surface, the heat and oppressive humidity, and Trust N Luck's relatively moderate fractions were all overcome. Bailey positioned himself cleverly on the rail so he could challenge if others failed to do so. There would be no repetition of the Fountain of Youth Stakes when Trust N Luck made his own way. Others pressed the issue, however, and Bailey was able to conserve his mount, whose focus was sharpened by the addition of blinkers.

"He might have peaked too soon," Frankel speculated at the barn the next morning, "but I hope that is not the case. After studying the matter, he will have another prep for the Kentucky Derby in the Wood Memorial on April 12. I drew up a plan and don't want to deviate from it. If he were to come to the Derby too fresh, he might not last through the rest of the series."

Frankel is aware that several impressive winners of the Florida Derby did not race to form in their final preps and then came back with solid performances to win the Derby. Monarchos was one and Unbridled, the sire of Empire Maker, was another. Frankel, a careful planner, hopes to be ready for contingencies.

He has a colt of unusual quality at hand. He might not have slammed a brilliant field on Saturday but his energy lit up the skies. It has been 25 years since Affirmed win the Triple Crown of 1978 and now there is at least reasonable hope we may see another.

Racing loses a very special man

Henryk deKwiatkowski had a champagne personality: He sparkled and effervesced and made everyone in his company feel a little better. No one in racing enjoyed a victory more, and people were pleased to see his horses win because he shared his exultation.

He did a great service to racing by buying Calumet Farm and saving the world-renown icon from the developers. He also gave us a moment to treasure when his Conquistador Cielo won the Met Mile and 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes in a five-day period in 1982.

He died at his home in Nassau on Monday but was ale to enjoy the victory of his promising 3-year-old prospect, Region of Merit, in Sunday's Tampa Bay Derby. He left as a winner.