04/14/2003 12:00AM

Empire Maker deserves chalk's role


NEW YORK - So now we have an overwhelming favorite for the Kentucky Derby on May 3. There is no other conclusion to reach following Empire Maker's victory in the Wood Memorial Saturday at Aqueduct. Nothing that happened in Saturday's other two Derby preps, the Blue Grass at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, and nothing that could possibly happen in this Saturday's Lexington Stakes at Keeneland can alter the likelihood that Empire Maker will be the shortest price favorite in the Derby since Arazi went off at 90 cents to a dollar in 1992.

That is no small point considering that in 2001 the number of individual betting interests in the Derby was opened up to match the number of starters, which can reach as high as 20. Before that, the number of individual parimutuel interests in the Derby was capped at 14, meaning that with win money spread among fewer horses it was easier to make a horse a short-priced favorite in the Derby.

Empire Maker deserves to be a heavy favorite. The Wood could not have gone any better for him if it had been choreographed. As was well documented, Empire Maker's connections did not want another blowout score like in last month's Florida Derby. They wanted a good result with as little effort as possible expended. That's exactly what they got.

Thanks to blinkers that were first added in the Florida Derby, which gave him positional early speed, Empire Maker was forwardly placed through three solid opening quarter-miles run in 23.50 seconds, 23.71, and 23.98. He didn't have to work hard to bid for the lead from there, and he outfinished Funny Cide, who ran a terrific race to be second. Despite the best efforts of Norberto Arroyo Jr., the rider of New York Hero, to rack up as much of the field as he could coming out of the gate, Funny Cide did not fold when denied the early lead everyone thought he would reach easily. Funny Cide was hard-ridden through the length of the stretch, while Empire Maker received about two underhanded taps of the whip, which were only meant to keep him on good behavior.

Empire Maker's quality became readily apparent with what was to transpire next. On the surface, the victory in the Blue Grass by Peace Rules, a barnmate of Empire Maker, seemed a solid effort. But after closer inspection, trainer Bobby Frankel was right to have expressed some reservations about Peace Rules and the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles.

For starters, Peace Rules fell out on an unpressured early lead along the rail, which at Keeneland is like being given the keys to the vault. Then, if the teletimer is to be believed (and no reason has yet surfaced not to, although there was a photo-finish camera malfunction in the Blue Grass), Peace Rules struggled through a fourth quarter-mile in 26.47.

And, when it looked like he was doing good work turning back a bid from Brancusi through the final furlong, Peace Rules was really only staggering less than his rivals, as that final eighth of a mile required 13.93 to complete. In other words, Peace Rules covered his final three furlongs in the Blue Grass in a dreadful 40.40. That will not get it done in Louisville.

Now, it is bad business comparing times on different racing surfaces without adjusting for the relative speed of the surfaces in question. For example, the week before, Buddy Gill completed 1 1/8 miles winning the Santa Anita Derby in 1:49.36, while Ten Most Wanted needed 1:51.47 to cover the same distance winning the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. Beyer Speed Figures, which adjust final time with the relative speed of the racing surface, indicate the main track at Hawthorne April 5 was profoundly slower than the main track at Santa Anita was that same day. Despite a much slower raw final time, Ten Most Wanted received a 110 Beyer and Buddy Gil got a 104.

It is misleading making comparisons of come-home times without making the same adjustments. Nevertheless, you don't need to know precisely how much slower than par the main track may have been Saturday to know Peace Rules's final three furlongs in the Blue Grass was poor, and that it doesn't compare to the final three furlongs of the Wood. The last three furlongs of the Wood went in 37.51, and Empire Maker closed 1 1/2 lengths into that fraction.

And then, there is the Arkansas Derby, which, as usual, was the odd man out in this trio of Derby preps. The truth is, three weeks out from the Derby, there aren't enough top 3-year-olds left to satisfy three prep races, and the Arkansas Derby suffers because it doesn't have the purse, or the cachet of the Wood and Blue Grass.

As this Arkansas Derby was run, the best horse was Eugene's Third Son. He was dead when he drew post 12, and on top of that, he attended very fast opening fractions. Even though he couldn't hold off Sir Cherokee, an impossible-to-make 55-1 shot, Eugene's Third Son somehow still finished 6 1/2 lengths clear of the rest. But keep in mind, Eugene's Third Son was previously beaten in the Lane's End by New York Hero, who was beaten nine lengths in the Wood by the barely trying Empire Maker.

For the record, the final three furlongs of the Arkansas Derby went in 38.41, meaning Sir Cherokee covered in it approximately 37 seconds. If you find that hard to believe, don't worry, you have company. People who make speed figures have long distrusted the times of 1 1/8-mile races at Oaklawn, which run faster than they should in comparison to two-turn races at other distances there.