04/16/2003 12:00AM

Empire Maker will be tough to beat

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LAS VEGAS - Empire Maker, heavy favorite for the Kentucky Derby, earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 111 in the Wood Memorial last Saturday - a very impressive performance.

Then, after the race, jockey Jerry Bailey said he had not asked Empire Maker for his best - that if he had hit his horse left-handed a few times he would have won by an additional three or four lengths. If Bailey is right, then Empire Maker actually could have run a figure of 116 or 118. That's an astounding number, especially considering that the average winning Beyer for the Wood Memorial over the past 15 years is 105.8, and only Coronado's Quest (116) and Fusaichi Pegasus (111) have run even remotely close to that number.

Trainer Bobby Frankel added his own tantalizing bit of hype, predicting that Empire Maker could very well improve five lengths off his Wood performance. "I hope there's a lot more there," he said. "If he improves five lengths we will be looking good."

Looking good indeed. If he improves five lengths he will be running a Beyer of 119 or 120 - unprecedented for a 3-year-old this early in the season.

If you accept their statements, and you add up the numbers, Bailey and Frankel seem to be trying to tell us that Empire Maker could be among the very best 3-year-olds we have seen in the past two decades. Frankel has always been extremely high on this horse, so it's certainly possible that we could be watching the emergence of a genuine superstar. Only time will tell, of course. But we need to remember that Fusaichi Pegasus also won the Wood with a figure of 111, and looked at least equally imposing. Although Fusaichi Pegasus did win the Derby, his Beyer actually dropped to 108, and over the longer run his promise was never really fulfilled.

The Beyer pattern for Empire Maker is ambiguous. In his brief five-race career he has improved steadily and incrementally, with Beyers of 84-92-98-108-111. He has made no huge leaps, no bounces as yet. And he has not been severely used in either of his last two victories, in the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial. So, even if there is some potential for a bounce, you would not expect any sort of dramatic regression. He has been handled carefully enough and has avoided any seriously draining efforts. So it will be up to the other possible contenders to bridge the Beyer gap if they're going to challenge him two weeks from Saturday at Churchill Downs.

One potential challenger who is getting a lot of attention is Empire Maker's stablemate Peace Rules. He has all the magic of Frankel behind him and has won two consecutive major stakes since being switched from the turf to the dirt - a Frankel specialty. But Peace Rules has benefited from good trips against weaker competition, has not been visually impressive, and still has managed Beyers of only 105 and 104 in his two victories. He has not yet demonstrated the capacity to run figures close to the 108 to 110 generally needed for a Derby win. Frankel claims Peace Rules won with plenty left in the Blue Grass last Saturday, but here I believe Frankel is overestimating his horse's performance. Of course, second-guessing a trainer on a magnificent four-year-long roll could be hazardous to your health.

What else can we learn from last Saturday's Triple Crown preps?

Funny Cide ran a huge Beyer of 111 in finishing second behind Empire Maker. Hampered in recent races by some tough trips, Funny Cide was able to set the pace on a somewhat speed-favoring wet surface. He finally had a chance to demonstrate that he belongs among the country's top 3-year-olds. But his effort appeared much more draining than Empire Maker's. Still, Funny Cide has to be considered a top contender for the Derby. He has demonstrated that he can run a figure in the Beyer Derby zone, and he could very well repeat a number somewhere around 110 because young, improving, high-quality runners often are able to avoid the bounce you might expect from your more ordinary horse.

Sir Cherokee, winner of the Arkansas Derby, looks much more likely to bounce. His dramatic jump from consistent figures in the low-80's all the way up to a 106 could very well produce a severe setback next time out.

Brancusi futilely chased Peace Rules around the Keeneland track. His recent Beyers of 101 and 98 should set him up for a strong performance in the Derby, but he doesn't seem like a threat for the top two spots. He just hasn't demonstrated that he can gain the 8 or 10 additional points he will very likely need in order to contend for the win at Churchill Downs.

Offlee Wild is an interesting possibility for big improvement in the Derby. He showed serious talent three races back when he earned a 99 Beyer at Gulfstream Park and has since encountered less-than-ideal circumstances, limiting his Beyers to the low-90's. He made little headway in the Blue Grass, which turned out to be a two-speed number in which no one closed at all. Perhaps with a more realistic pace, where he can settle and then make one big run, Offlee Wild could have a greater impact in the Derby.

Last weekend's three preps cemented Empire Maker as a clear and deserving favorite for the Kentucky Derby. With Bailey and Frankel publicly proclaiming that his best is yet to come, the Derby holds out the promise of a superstar performance. We shall see.

BIG THREE BEYERS

HorseLast Three Beyer Figures
Empire Maker111  108  98
Peace Rules104  105  102
Sir Cherokee106  80  84