Updated on 09/17/2011 11:19AM

Focus on equipment

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Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Empire Maker (above) has flourished since wearing blinkers, while Ministers Wild Cat will try them out Saturday in the Lexington. Slits in the cups allow the horses some limited peripheral vision.

When trainer Bobby Frankel thought Empire Maker had more to give, he tried blinkers to bring out the best in the colt. Significantly sharper performances were the result, with victories in both the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial. Now Empire Maker is the Kentucky Derby favorite.

Neil Drysdale, who trains Ministers Wild Cat, and Ron Ellis, the trainer of Aswhatimtalknbout, are hoping blinkers can bring similar improvement to their top 3-year-old prospects. Like the band members of "Spinal Tap," they are turning the knob to 11, trying to get that little something extra.

Hello, Louisville.

"Sometimes you use them on a horse because he is intimidated, and sometimes because he has trouble keeping a straight line in a race," Drysdale said Wednesday from Kentucky, where he is scheduled to race Ministers Wild Cat in blinkers for the first time in Saturday's $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. "It just depends on the situation. With this colt, we're hoping blinkers make him more focused.

"In both of his races in San Francisco," Drysdale said, referring to a victory in the Golden State Mile and a second-place finish in the El Camino Real Derby, "he wasn't as focused as he should have been."

Blinkers once were the exclusive property of horses who were considered unruly or below top class. There was such a stigma attached to them that in Europe blinkers were known as the "rogue's badge." But blinkers have been commonly used equipment for decades. The first known instance of a Kentucky Derby winner wearing blinkers was Elwood, in 1904. Triple Crown winners Assault, Count Fleet, Gallant Fox, Omaha, Secretariat, Sir Barton, and Whirlaway all wore blinkers.

Mikie Crady, who has made blinkers across the street from Churchill Downs at Louisville's well-known Becker and Durski Turf Goods for the past five years, said blinkers cost anywhere from $45 to $70 each.

"I made five sets yesterday," she said Wednesday.

Blinkers consist of a fabric hood, usually nylon, that goes over a horse's head and are fastened under the horse's jaw, usually with Velcro. Plastic cups are affixed to the cut outs for the eyes. The cups vary in severity, depending on how much of the horse's vision the trainer wants to restrict.

Kafwain, for instance, has worn blinkers his whole career. Last year, at age 2, he wore what are known as "cheaters," which have a small plastic cup surrounding the eyes. For this year's San Vicente Stakes, however, he was outfitted with blinkers that had a more severe cup. He won by 4 1/2 lengths and earned the highest Beyer Speed Figure of his career, a 115.

They don't always help, however. Indy Dancer wore them for the first time in Saturday's Wood Memorial, and still lacked early speed.

Atswhatimtalknbout, who finished fourth as the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby in his last start, is scheduled to race with blinkers for the first time when he runs in the Kentucky Derby. He had a practice run with them on Wednesday, working for the first time in blinkers and covering a half-mile in 49.60 seconds on a fast track at Churchill Downs. Exercise rider Raul Vizcarrondo was aboard.

"I didn't really know what to expect," Ellis told a Churchill Downs publicist before dashing off to fly back to his home in California. "I'm not used to training here and I didn't know what he would do with the blinkers on, so I told the rider to just kind of let him go off on his own. He started off just looking around and gawking a little bit. He finished okay, but I think he's still looking around."

The colt's abundant curiosity is one of the reasons Ellis cited for deciding to try Atswhatimtalknbout in blinkers

"He's getting used to them," Ellis said. "He didn't really accept them and think it was the greatest thing ever. It's going to take a little getting used to them."

Empire Maker took right to them. He raced with blinkers for the first time in the Florida Derby, which he won by 9 3/4 lengths.

"He wears French blinkers," Frankel said Wednesday from Hollywood Park. "They're wide open. The plastic cup is maybe two, two and a half inches, enough for him to pay attention,"

Frankel said he added blinkers to Empire Maker because "he was just running in spots. He was into the bridle, then he'd come off the bridle. I wanted him into the bridle."

The blinkers Empire Maker wear have a small slit in the plastic cups, allowing some peripheral vision.

"I don't know if it matters," Frankel said. "They're made that way. Supposedly it's so they can see someone coming up to them."

What Frankel does know is that blinkers have moved Empire Maker forward. How much was due to the blinkers and how much was because of the development a 3-year-old often makes at this time of year is harder to quantify, according to both Frankel and Empire Maker's jockey, Jerry Bailey.

"It's probably a little of both," Frankel said.

"That's a very good question," Bailey said. "We always thought he might need them. You can't move the Derby back. You can't afford to wait one race for something he might need. I think the blinkers did hasten his improvement."

In other Derby developments Wednesday:

- Ten Most Wanted, the Illinois Derby winner, worked a half-mile in 48.40 seconds at Keeneland with exercise rider Brian Beccia aboard. He is scheduled to be sent by van to Churchill Downs on Friday, according to trainer Wally Dollase.

- Fund of Funds, who finished second in the Illinois Derby, breezed four furlongs at Aqueduct in 48.12 seconds with assistant trainer Nancy Hickling aboard.

- Scrimshaw, scheduled to run in the Lexington, zipped a half-mile at Churchill Downs in 46.60 seconds, the fastest time of 46 at the distance.

- additional reporting by David Grening