04/07/2003 11:00PM

Empire Maker should shine on center stage

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LAS VEGAS - The final major prep races for the Kentucky Derby - the Wood Memorial Stakes, Blue Grass Stakes, and Arkansas Derby - form a fascinating national pick three Saturday. Here's a look at the races:

Wood Memorial

The Wood Memorial takes center stage because of the appearance of Empire Maker, the Kentucky Derby favorite. Trainer Bobby Frankel has said he simply wants a good performance from Empire Maker and is using the Wood to set up Empire Maker for the Derby. Still, Empire Maker went from a colt with huge potential to a rising star in the Florida Derby and is strictly the colt to beat in the Wood.

Indy Dancer, who has a plodder's reputation following his last two races, showed in previous races that he has a turn of foot. Sunday, Indy Dancer worked five furlongs for the Wood in a crisp 59.47 seconds at Belmont, and it is plausible that the surface switch from Gulfstream to Aqueduct and the addition of blinkers will wake him up big time Saturday. A son of A.P. Indy out of a full sister to stakes winner Souvenir Copy, Indy Dancer should only get better with maturity and at added distances.

Senor Swinger, now trained by Bob Baffert, also has a pedigree for 1 1/4 miles. By last year's leading stallion, El Prado (the sire of Medaglia d'Oro), Senor Swinger is out of a Kris S. mare. He appears ready for a big effort in the Wood after having worked six furlongs at Santa Anita in 1:11.60 Sunday.

Lane's End Stakes winner New York Hero, by Partner's Hero (a stakes-winning half-brother to the 1989 champion sprinter Safely Kept), is from the female family that produced 1986 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Skywalker.

Funny Cide, by Distorted Humor, may find nine furlongs his limit against top company.

Blue Grass

While Empire Maker is the star attraction this weekend, the Blue Grass Stakes may be the most competitive prep, with Badge of Silver, Peace Rules, Offlee Wild, Brancusi, and Great Notion hooking up.

One of the most impressive performances by a 3-year-old this year was turned in by Badge of Silver in his Risen Star Stakes win. He finished sixth in the Louisiana Derby, but had surgery for a displaced palate shortly thereafter. He's been training sharply and has the kind of speed that is tailor-made for the Keeneland surface. Badge of Silver is by Silver Deputy and out of a mare by Silver Hawk. He should have no problem with the 1 1/8 miles of the Blue Grass.

Peace Rules is by the suddenly hot stallion Jules (by Forty Niner), and he also has the tactical speed to be very dangerous at Keeneland. While Peace Rules should be able to run 1 1/8 miles, he may have trouble getting the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles.

Offlee Wild and Brancusi are the horses in the Blue Grass with the most upside.

Offlee Wild won the Holy Bull Stakes at 27-1, and then finished fourth in the Fountain of Youth Stakes after a blistering five-furlong workout just days before the race. He then developed a bacterial infection.

By Breeders' Cup Classic winner Wild Again and out of a half-sister to Dynaformer, Offlee Wild has a major Derby pedigree. While he does not have to win the Blue Grass, Offlee Wild needs a good effort to be sent to the Derby.

Brancusi, from the first crop of 1997 Travers Stakes and Super Derby winner Deputy Commander, has made giant strides in only a few months. Brancusi earned his only win in a maiden race but finished third behind Buddy Gil and Atswhatimtalknbout in the San Felipe Stakes at 48-1. With Alysheba as his dam's sire and the marvelous multiple group winner Treizieme as his second dam, Brancusi has plenty of stamina in his pedigree.

Great Notion is by Elusive Quality and is out of a half-sister to stakes winner Talinum. Runners by Elusive Quality are showing high speed, and it is unlikely they will be as effective over a distance of ground. Great Notion is out of a mare by European sprinter Dayjur, a further indication he may have trouble with the Blue Grass distance.

Arkansas Derby

While the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass are loaded with quality, the Arkansas Derby has quantity and is the key to the pick three.

Although his victory in the Tampa Bay Derby seemed uninspiring, Region of Merit appeared as if he didn't care for the surface and won on class alone. From the first crop of the up-and-coming superstar stallion Touch Gold, Region of Merit is out of a mare by two-time Arc winner Alleged. He will run all day and is my selection to win the Arkansas Derby.

Christine's Outlaw, by Wild Again, showed ability in Florida and should also be used in the pick three.

Aristocat, by speed influence Tale of the Cat, lost to Region of Merit both times they met and his chances decrease as the distances increase.

Cat Genius, a winner of four of five starts, all in wire-to-wire fashion, will try to stretch his speed nine furlongs in the Arkansas Derby. The Kentucky Derby distance is out of reach for him.

Man Among Men, from the first crop of the classy Gentlemen, upset Empire Maker in the Sham Stakes, but he ultimately may be best on grass.