Updated on 09/17/2011 10:22AM

Extra school work

Empire Maker, with exercise rider Jose Cuevas, get familiar with the starting gate Thursday at Churchill Downs.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Between the routine gallops and occasional workouts that punctuate a training regimen, there are numerous details that a trainer must tend to leading up to a race. When you are training a colt for the Kentucky Derby, and that horse is the acknowledged favorite, the process is magnified.

It is particularly so for Empire Maker, whose brilliant performances in the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial have overshadowed his occasionally mercurial personality. Many horses related to him - half-brothers and sisters - have been moody, and difficult at the starting gate. In an attempt to make sure Empire Maker behaves himself as best he can come Derby Day next Saturday, trainer Bobby Frankel had Empire Maker go to the gate Thursday morning at Churchill Downs so that the colt and the starting gate crew, headed by starter Roger Nagle, could become acquainted with one another.

Empire Maker, with exercise rider Jose Cuevas aboard, was the first horse on the track after the mid-morning renovation break. He had a spirited gallop of about 1 1/2 miles, then came to the gate - which in the mornings is positioned at the quarter pole, near the starting point for the Derby - for his schooling session.

Frankel drove his rental car from the stable area around the outskirts of the track to the top of the stretch. In tow was Jerry Bailey, the jockey who rides Empire Maker in his races. Before leaving the stable, Frankel affixed blinkers to Empire Maker so that the schooling session would approximate as closely as possible conditions on race day.

Frankel greeted Nagle, who politely told the trainer, "I want everything to go as smooth as possible."

As they were talking, Empire Maker eagerly galloped past. A few moments later, he came around again.

"Didn't that seem quick to you?" Bailey said to Frankel, in a tone of awe, rather than concern.

"He's got a long stride," Frankel said. "That's why, the way he gallops, I'm only going to give him one work. He's got a high cruising speed."

Cuevas brought Empire Maker to a stop at the eighth pole, then jogged back the wrong way along the outside fence and arrived at the starting gate. Since the regular 14-stall gate used for racing is too wide to use during training hours, the six-stall auxiliary gate, used for overflow horses in the Derby, is in use for schooling.

When Empire Maker first got to the gate, he had to wait while two other horses stood in and then broke from the gate. A stable pony was now with Empire Maker, who got a little antsy, dancing in place.

Finally, it was Empire Maker's turn. Nagle had three of his assistants work with Empire Maker. Two got behind and to the side of Empire Maker. They locked arms, and urged Empire Maker forward, while a third assistant led the colt from the front with a lead shank attached to his bridle.

Empire Maker paused. One gate assistant patted him repeatedly on the forehead, trying to soothe him. Cuevas tapped the colt's flank with the heels of his boots, and Empire Maker walked with purpose into his stall.

"Hook him from behind," Frankel said of the two assistants who were behind Empire Maker, "and he walks right in."

Empire Maker stood in the gate for a couple of minutes. He was then backed out and re-loaded. After again standing in the gate, he was backed out again, then re-loaded a third time. By now, Empire Maker was growing increasingly agitated. His disdain was mild, but apparent, as he kicked out twice with his hind legs, once lightly with his left, then more forcefully with his right. Meanwhile, horses backed up behind the gate, awaiting their session, while other horses flew past, either galloping or working out.

"I think he was saying, 'Hey, I've done it three times,' " Bailey said. "This is good. There's a lot going on around here."

By the time he was done, Empire Maker began to sweat.

"That's good," Frankel said. "It's like a fighter. You don't want him cold."

Frankel thanked Nagle, who replied, "Thank you, Bobby. I think we got him."

Back at the barn, Frankel was relieved.

"I'm glad I got that out of the way," he said. "I brought him there for the starter's sake. They were happy. I'm going to go ahead and work him Sunday, six furlongs. If he goes in 1:13, I will be happy."

In other Derby developments Thursday:

- Outta Here worked five furlongs in 59.80 seconds at Hollywood Park with assistant trainer Pat Seeley aboard. "He went super," said Bill Currin, who trains and is co-owner of Outta Here. "As the kids say, I'm really stoked." Outta Here is scheduled to fly to Kentucky on Sunday.

- Evolving Tactics, the Irish colt whose trainer, Dermot Weld, had a 15-minute flirtation with running in the Derby, is not coming. "He's just too inexperienced a horse for the hustle-bustle of the Kentucky Derby," Weld said from Ireland.

- The potential Derby field now stands at 18. Confirmed are Atswhatimtalknbout, Brancusi, Buddy Gil, Empire Maker, Funny Cide, Indian Express, Kafwain, Offlee Wild, Outta Here, Peace Rules, Scrimshaw, Sir Cherokee, Supah Blitz, and Ten Most Wanted. Possible are Eye of the Tiger, Lone Star Sky, Senor Swinger, and Ten Cents a Shine.

- The two-step process for determining post positions for the Kentucky Derby has been modified slightly for this year's race, Churchill Downs announced Thursday.

For the Derby, a blind draw is held to determine the order of selection for posts, then someone connected with each horse picks the horse's post. Since 1998, when the draw format was changed, this all took place in the one-hour show televised by ESPN.

This year, however, the blind draw will be held in the racing office around noon Wednesday, once entries for the Derby close. The selection of posts alone now will be shown on the ESPN telecast later that evening.

- additional reporting by Alan Shuback