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Updated on 09/17/2011 11:07AM
Empire Maker walks the walk
ARCADIA, Calif. - The talk began last fall at Belmont Park, when Empire Maker so dominated fellow 2-year-olds in his workouts that Bobby Frankel had to match him up with Travers Stakes winner Medaglia d'Oro just to give him some competition. By the time Empire Maker won a maiden race in his first start at Belmont, he was the next coming.
Two subsequent losses in stakes races took a bit of the shine off Empire Maker, but the colt continued to train so well, and perked up so significantly when he worked in blinkers, that Frankel believed a breakout performance was imminent.
Last Saturday, the whole world saw what Frankel had always thought was there. Empire Maker's impressive victory in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park - in which he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 - has made him the unquestioned favorite for the May 3 Kentucky Derby.
But the past weekend also saw a tenacious victory by Buddy Gil in Santa Anita's San Felipe Stakes, and a fast-finishing effort in that race by the long-striding Atswhatimtalknbout, who has a strong pedigree, like Empire Maker, and an apparent preference for distance racing, too.
Empire Maker was scheduled to fly back to his base at Hollywood Park on Tuesday to prepare for his next scheduled start, in the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 12. Frankel came home Sunday night, and was back at work Monday morning at Hollywood Park.
"He's a good horse, but until he shows it, you can talk all you want and it doesn't really matter," Frankel said Monday from his barn at Hollywood Park. "I wasn't trying to hype him last year, but everybody started hyping him when they saw him work. I always thought he had that kind of talent."
It came out Saturday when Frankel added blinkers for the first time. Empire Maker then went out and beat Trust N Luck by 9 3/4 lengths under jockey Jerry Bailey.
"The blinkers are moderate. The cup is about two or three inches. They're not cheaters, but they're not closed either," Frankel said. "He broke real well with them, and he was pulling going into the first turn. Jerry sent him out of there, and that put racing on his mind. The blinkers were a big, big help."
Frankel said Empire Maker would train at Hollywood Park until leaving for Aqueduct "four or five days" before the Wood.
After the race Saturday, Frankel flirted with passing the Wood and waiting for the Kentucky Derby with Empire Maker, but reconsidered by Sunday morning. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby straight from the Florida Derby since Needles in 1956. No horse has won the Derby with only four career starts since Exterminator in 1918. And no horse has won the Derby with only two preps as a 3-year-old since Sunny's Halo in 1983.
"I don't want to buck the trend," Frankel said. "I don't want to deviate from my original plan. If I was to go through the Triple Crown, I don't want to bring a horse into a race like the Derby too fresh, where he might not be there for the rest of the series. He doesn't need all that much training in between."
Asked if he was worried Empire Maker might peak too soon, Frankel said, "He might have peaked too soon, but I think he's got so much ability maybe he didn't run his top race."
Peace Rules, with whom Frankel won the Louisiana Derby on March 9, will definitely make his next start in the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 12, Frankel said.
"We'll see how he runs. I've got to give him a chance," Frankel said.
Frankel also won Saturday's Swale Stakes with Midas Eyes. He won that seven-furlong race by 9 1/4 lengths while earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 110. Frankel said it is too late in the spring to rush Midas Eyes into the Derby picture. He said Midas Eyes would run next in either the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs on April 26, or the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct on May 3. Both are at one mile, and around one turn.
Trust N Luck, who finished second to Empire Maker, will go straight into the Kentucky Derby, trainer Ralph Ziadie said. Indy Dancer, the third-place finisher, will go to the Wood, according to trainer Todd Pletcher.
Buddy Gil received a 102 for his victory in the San Felipe. He was caught in traffic on both the far turn and at midstretch, but came charging through like a fullback.
"He didn't have the smoothest of trips, but you need to have a horse who can take adversity in the Derby," Gary Stevens, who rode Buddy Gil, said Monday morning. "I had to wait, wait, wait. He's a good horse, and I rode him like I was on a good horse, with confidence."
Buddy Gil is now 2 for 2 since being transferred to red-hot trainer Jeff Mullins. In his previous start, Buddy Gil won the Baldwin Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on Santa Anita's hillside turf course. He is not yet nominated to the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown, but he will be for $6,000 by the next deadline, March 29.
Buddy Gil will make his next start in the Santa Anita Derby, giving him a rematch with Atswhatimtalknbout, who took the worst of the head bob at the finish of the San Felipe. Still, Atswhatimtalknbout galloped out powerfully after the race and came out of it well, according to his trainer, Ron Ellis.
"He looked good yesterday, and he's really good today," Ellis said Monday morning at Santa Anita. "He was flying at the end of the race. He should move forward. It was the first time he took dirt in his face. That's one more thing he learned. Both he and Empire Maker are improving, and it seems the longer the better for them."
Brancusi, who finished third at odds of 48-1, will make his next start in the Blue Grass, trainer Patrick Biancone said.
Domestic Dispute, fifth as the 2-1 favorite, will try again in the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Bob Baffert said. "If we have the same result in that race, we're going to Lone Star Park," Baffert said. Corey Nakatani will ride Domestic Dispute in the Santa Anita Derby.
Man Among Men, seventh as the 5-2 second choice, bled "about one and a-half or two on a scale of five," trainer Gary Mandella said Monday. "It kind of explains why he was so dull. We'll watch him for a few days and make sure he doesn't get sick before making any plans."
In other Derby developments:
* Alysweep, who won Sunday's Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct by 4 1/4 lengths and received a Beyer Speed Figure of 103, will run next in either the Wood or the Blue Grass, with preference to the Wood, trainer Pat Reynolds said.
* Trainer Christophe Clement is not sure where Region of Merit will make his next start following his victory in Sunday's Tampa Bay Derby, in which he earned a Beyer figure of 93. Region of Merit's owner, Henryk de Kwiatkowski, died Monday.
* Aristocat, who was second to Region of Merit, will head next to the Blue Grass, trainer Todd Pletcher said.
* Baffert said the filly Composure will make her next start in the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland on April 5. Jerry Bailey will ride.
* During, an allowance race winner last week at Santa Anita for Baffert, will run next in either the Santa Anita Derby or the Wood.
- additional reporting by David Grening, Karen M. Johnson, and Mike Welsch