04/27/2003 11:00PM

An exotic game plan to beat the chalk

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NEW YORK - If the question is, "Who is most likely to win Saturday's Kentucky Derby?" then the answer is easy. Empire Maker's career turned around when blinkers were added to his equipment two starts ago. Since then, he has won the Florida Derby by almost 10 lengths, improving on his previous best Beyer Speed Figure by a healthy 10 points, and the Wood Memorial by a well-measured half-length - a race designed to drain as little of his reserves as possible - handling a muddy track and improving his best Beyer Figure by another 3 points to 111.

In both races, Empire Maker displayed previously unseen positional speed, a critical asset attributable to blinkers. Since March, the only other 3-year-old who has been even as remotely compelling as Empire Maker is his barnmate Midas Eyes, the impressive winner of the Swale and Derby Trial, and he's not running Saturday. And that includes another barnmate of Empire Maker, Peace Rules, who since March won the Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass, and Buddy Gil, who has won the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby.

Empire Maker is trained by Bobby Frankel and ridden by Jerry Bailey, who were both inducted into the Hall of Fame eight years ago. If anything, Frankel and Bailey have only gotten better since, as evidenced by the fact that each has been voted an Eclipse Award the last three years.

If, however, the question is, "Who do you bet in Saturday's Kentucky Derby?" the answer doesn't necessarily have to be Empire Maker. Whether it's because of the distance, or the oversized field, or the hectic atmosphere of the day itself, favorites simply don't do well in the Derby, and Empire Maker will probably be the shortest-priced Derby favorite since Arazi stunk up the joint at 4-5 in 1992. As Steven Crist pointed out in his Sunday column (after his shocking admission that he's a chalk-eating coward), only two favorites have won in the last 25 runnings of the Derby, for a success rate of only 8 percent, far below the universal strike rate for favorites of 33 percent, for a net loss of $40.20 on a $2 flat-bet wager.

Then there is the matter of Empire Maker's maturity. Although he is much better now than the pre-blinkered, spotty, underachieving Empire Maker, he is still one of the less-experienced members of the field, with only five starts, and he is still a bit goofy. Empire Maker's lead-changes through the stretch of both the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial were not perfectly executed. He was able to get away with it against six opponents in Florida and seven in the Wood. But will he be able to get away with it against 17 or so opponents Saturday, many of them intent on playing horsey ping-pong on the track? Will he be able to get away with it with the traffic and wide trips that fields of such size inevitably bring?

With Empire Maker at odds in the neighborhood of 7-5, do you want to pay to find out? No matter what anyone says, there is no glory, and precious little reward, in a $4.80 winner, even if that winner comes in a race that has been poison to favorites.

Would I be surprised if Empire Maker won the Derby? Of course not. Would I be surprised if Empire Maker was beaten Saturday? Not at all.

As easily as I can picture him scoring by daylight, I can also envision a scenario of Empire Maker, if he isn't stopped by traffic, making a run from off the pace, losing ground around the far turn, staying on his left lead too long down the long stretch, and, as a result, weakening late. Since either scenario is equally plausible, Empire Maker is a bet-against at a low price.

Trifectas are a good bet in the Derby (and for those with deeper pockets, so are superfectas) because each entrant is an individual betting interest, and the bigger the field the higher the potential payoff. Trifectas can be a better bet if you can get the favorite out of the top slot, and can be even better yet if you can get the favorite off the board. With that in mind, here's the trifecta part-wheel play I envision making in the Derby:

Ten Most Wanted, who ran huge winning the Illinois Derby, and Funny Cide, so game in finishing second in the Wood, with Ten Most Wanted, Funny Cide, Buddy Gil, and Empire Maker (because I'm not completely crazy), with Ten Most Wanted, Funny Cide, Buddy Gil, Empire Maker, Peace Rules, Atswhatimtalknbout, Indian Express, Sir Cherokee, and, if he goes, Senor Swinger. For a $1 denomination, that's a $42 play. If it comes in Funny Cide-Buddy Gil-Senor Swinger, I'll need another suitcase just to get the money home. On the other hand, I may have just made the Empire Maker-Peace Rules exacta a mortal lock.