Updated on 09/17/2011 11:17AM

Final stop before Louisville

If Empire Maker handles an off track he will likely handle his Wood Memorial competition Saturday at the Big A for trainer Bobby Frankel and rider Jerry Bailey.

OZONE PARK, N.Y. - In the 109 seconds it took for him to win the Florida Derby, Empire Maker went from underachiever to Kentucky Derby favorite. If he is to maintain that position in three weeks, Empire Maker must clear one more hurdle, Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.

To do that, Empire Maker may have to answer one important question.

Can he swim?

Though Thursday was dry and cool in New York, and while it may reach 60 degrees by Saturday afternoon, up to an inch of rain was expected to fall on Friday, adding more moisture to an already saturated Aqueduct surface. A sloppy track is likely Saturday, making track condition as formidable a foe for Empire Maker as any of the seven 3-year-olds he'll face in the Grade 1 Wood.

While Empire Maker looked comfortable jogging over Aqueduct's sloppy main track Thursday morning, trainer Bobby Frankel said he has "no feel" for how the horse will handle an off track in a race. Empire Maker is by Unbridled, who finished third in the slop at Keeneland in the 1990 Blue Grass after winning the Florida Derby and before winning the Kentucky Derby.

"The track is my biggest concern," said Frankel, whose horse was assigned post 8. "He's never run on it and you never know until they perform over it how they'll do."

The presence of Empire Maker makes the Wood the marquee race of the last round of major Kentucky Derby preps. It will be televised live on ESPN in a one-hour program beginning at 3:30 p.m. Eastern. The race goes off at 4:15. The Wood is also the first leg of the Big 3 Pick 3, which also encompasses the Blue Grass Stakes from Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby from Oaklawn Park. Those races, along with tape-delay coverage of the Wood, will be shown on NBC beginning at 4:30 Eastern.

If Empire Maker handles the off track, he is expected to handle his competition and head to Louisville Sunday morning as a solid favorite for the 129th Kentucky Derby, May 3 at Churchill Downs.

Empire Maker was only a maiden winner when he went into last month's Florida Derby. Equipped with blinkers for the first time, Empire Maker obliterated the field by 9 3/4 lengths despite not switching leads until two strides before the wire. He has trained well since and has Frankel exuding confidence.

"I hate to be this confident," Frankel said.

Though Frankel does not want to see a gut-wrenching effort Saturday, his intention is to win the Wood. In addition to the $450,000 first-place purse, the New York Racing Association will award a $100,000 bonus to the trainer of a horse who wins the Wood and the Kentucky Derby.

Jockey Jerry Bailey figures to have Empire Maker just off the pace, which should be set by Funny Cide and contested by New York Hero or Kissin Saint.

Funny Cide may be the biggest threat to Empire Maker. He is coming off a good third in the Louisiana Derby, where he set strong fractions but continued well in the stretch. After battling through a lung infection much of the winter, Funny Cide appears to be the fittest he has been since last fall. Funny Cide will take them as far as he can under Jose Santos, and his connections do not fear the mud.

New York Hero was running in blinkers for the first time when he won the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway on March 29. His connections know he must improve to topple Empire Maker.

"I believe he ran quite well, but there's bigger and tougher [opponents] out there," said trainer Jennifer Pedersen, whose horse will break from the rail under Norberto Arroyo Jr. "He's running against a better horse; he has to run a lot harder."

Trainer Todd Pletcher will add blinkers to Indy Dancer's equipment, hoping to keep him a little closer than he was in the Florida Derby, when he rallied from 24 lengths back to be third, 10 1/4 lengths behind Empire Maker.

"What I'm afraid of is, if he shows a lot of improvement in the first half, he's not going to have the same late kick," Pletcher said. "I want the same last three-eighths he's been giving. I just don't want to be 25 lengths out of it when he starts."

Senor Swinger was reported to have flipped his palate when a well-beaten fifth in the Florida Derby. He has since been purchased by Bob and Beverly Lewis and turned over to trainer Bob Baffert, who won this race in 2001 with Congaree.

Kissin Saint has won three straight, including a nine-furlong victory over this track two weeks ago. Sky Soldier, who won the Private Terms in the mud, and Spite the Devil, third in the Gotham, complete the field.



Purse: $750,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 1

1New York HeroN. Arroyo12-1
2Spite The DevilM. Luzzi 20-1
3Kissin SaintR. Migliore15-1
4Funny CideJ. Santos5-1
5Senor SwingerG. Stevens6-1
6Indy DancerJ. Velazquez8-1
7Sky SoldierR. Madrigal20-1
8Empire MakerJ. Bailey3-5

All starters carry 123 pounds

Blinkers On: Indy Dancer

Odds by Brian Pochman

Television: 3:30-4:30 p.m.,ESPN