04/15/2003 11:00PM

Frankel has left something in the tank

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LAS VEGAS - The list is dwindling. Last Saturday's three prep races exposed many pretenders for the Kentucky Derby.

Wood Memorial

Solidifying his claim as the best 3-year-old in the country, Empire Maker won the Wood Memorial by a half-length, but the margin of victory was deceptive. It was a measured win by design. Trainer Bobby Frankel wanted to save the best for the Derby and have Empire Maker peak on May 3. The late master horseman Horatio Luro, the trainer of 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Northern Dancer, uttered this famous quote: "Don't squeeze the lemon dry."

Empire Maker gives you much to like. In addition to his pedigree of class and stamina (Unbridled out of the priceless broodmare Toussaud), he has tactical speed and can be placed anywhere in a race. He broke sharply from post 8 in the Wood, and jockey Jerry Bailey guided him into a stalking position outside of the speed over the muddy track. Empire Maker made his move around the final turn, and it was apparent that he could have opened up at any time. A $750,000 purse is nothing to sneeze at, but it is not the ultimate prize, and Empire Maker wasn't asked for his best to keep Funny Cide at bay.

Funny Cide showed he has a big heart to match his talent. A New York-bred by 2002 leading freshman sire Distorted Humor, Funny Cide was at a disadvantage facing Empire Maker at 1 1/8 miles, and he will be at an even bigger disadvantage facing him at 1 1/4 miles. Funny Cide never stopped battling and he should win many 3-year-old stakes this year.

Kissin Saint finished third, 7 1/2 lengths behind Funny Cide. Kissin Saint gets stamina from his sire, Kissin Kris (a son of Kris S.). In the Wood, he passed a dead-tired New York Hero (Partner's Hero), who was gliding along on the lead until the stretch.

Even if the muddy surface can be blamed for the poor performances of Senor Swinger and Indy Dancer, they have run out of time. The lightly raced Senor Swinger, who sizzled six furlongs in 1:11.60 in a workout at Santa Anita, needed to have a good effort for his new trainer Bob Baffert to move him up for the Derby.

The addition of blinkers did nothing to help Indy Dancer, who had a fast five-furlong work (59.40) for this race. A son of A.P. Indy, Indy Dancer has been a major disappointment now in three straight races, and although he is bred to handle 1 1/4 miles, he needs a dramatic turnaround to finish in the top three at Churchill Downs.

Blue Grass

With Badge of Silver scratched with a leg fracture, and the entire complexion of the race changed. Peace Rules was the controlling speed, and when a horse of quality is allowed to set a modest pace, especially over a Keeneland surface known to be strongly biased for speed, the race is essentially over.

After a gallant try by Brancusi, Peace Rules had plenty left to spurt away and win by 3 1/2 lengths. Peace Rules is by the unheralded sire Jules, who was sent to Brazil because he did not impress with his first few crops. Jules may be Forty Niner's best-bred son at stud, and he was not given a fair chance when he entered stud, having been bred to mares of dubious quality. Jules comes from the female family that produced Northern Dancer.

Had Jules been bred to mares with Northern Dancer in their pedigree, the result would be inbreeding to the exceptional female Natalma. This breeding pattern - inbreeding to a superior female within five generations through different individuals - known as the Rasmussen Factor, would undoubtedly have produced runners of quality. In fact, there is no greater example of the Rasmussen Factor, or of inbreeding to Natalma in particular, than Danehill, one of the world's great stallions. Danehill is by Danzig (a son of Northern Dancer) and his second dam is Spring Adieu (Buckpasser), a half-sister to Northern Dancer.

But Peace Rules has a female family full of brilliant speed rather than stamina influences. Peace Rules's dam's sire is Hold Your Peace and his second dam is by another speed source, Greek Answer. Peace Rules has unquestionable class, but his brilliance will diminish as the distances increase.

Brancusi is from the first crop of the exciting Deputy Commander, and still has room for improvement. Third in the San Felipe Stakes after winning a maiden race, Brancusi was forced to chase Peace Rules in the Blue Grass. A different pace scenario in the Derby might favor Brancusi, who is bred to run all day. His dam is by Alysheba, and his second dam is European group winner Trezieme.

Offlee Wild (Wild Again), who finished third, desperately was in need of a race, having been sidelined by a bacterial infection after finishing fourth in the Fountain of Youth. Offlee Wild has a classic Darby Dan female family (his dam is a half-sister to Dynaformer by Seattle Slew) and has a big chance at 1 1/4 miles.

Arkansas Derby

The unlikely winner, Sir Cherokee, is by Kafwain's sire, speed influence Cherokee Run. But Sir Cherokee gets stamina from his dam's sire, Last Tycoon, and second damsire, Grey Dawn II. Eugene's Third Son, who finished second after setting fast fractions, is by Indian Charlie, whose impressive first crop also includes Santa Anita Derby runner-up Indian Express. But neither should scare Empire Maker.