09/22/2003 11:00PM

How strong is the Empire?

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Empire Maker has thrilled and baffled them all, including assistant trainer Reuben Loza and exercise rider Mitsu.

ELMONT, N.Y. - He has won three Grade 1 races, including the Belmont Stakes. But considering the expectations placed on him before he ever ran, Empire Maker enters the fall with something still to prove.

The next four weeks could very well determine Empire Maker's legacy and his future. A victory over leading handicap horse Mineshaft in either Saturday's $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park or in next month's $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita will go a long way in determining if Empire Maker can win an Eclipse Award and be remembered as a truly special individual or just another over-hyped horse.

After all, this was a horse being touted as a potential Triple Crown winner before he debuted last fall.

The results of his next two races also will play a role in whether Empire Maker will be retired or return to race as a 4-year-old. Dr. John Chandler, the president of Juddmonte Farms - the owner and breeder of Empire Maker - said the question regarding Empire Maker's future is "a very difficult question to answer at this stage."

"We've got to win one of our last two races before we retire him," said Chandler, who added he has received a lot of interest from people wanting to breed their mares to Empire Maker, a son of Unbridled.

Added trainer Bobby Frankel: "If he can win the last two races, I'd be as happy as a pig in . . . "

Chandler admitted to being a bit disappointed with how things worked out for Empire Maker this year, though he emphasized he is not disappointed in the horse himself. Missed training because of a bruised foot may have compromised Empire Maker in the Kentucky Derby when he was beaten 1 3/4 lengths by Funny Cide, the same horse Empire Maker seemingly had toyed with in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial four weeks earlier.

After skipping the Preakness - won by Funny Cide - Empire Maker derailed Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid with a three-quarter-length victory over Ten Most Wanted in the Belmont Stakes.

That was supposed to be a springboard to greatness for Empire Maker. But he was beaten a neck in the Jim Dandy by Strong Hope and was forced to miss the Travers due to illness. Saturday's Jockey Club Gold Cup will be Empire Maker's first start in eight weeks.

"I guess I'd say the right verbiage would be he could validate himself with a victory Saturday or in the Breeders' Cup, but I wouldn't categorize his year as a disappointment," said Jerry Bailey, Empire Maker's regular rider, who in the spring felt Empire Maker was capable of winning a Triple Crown. "I still stand by my statement he's the best 3-year-old I've ever ridden. It's just getting him to focus on the job at hand."

Bailey said that aside from the Florida Derby - Empire Maker's first start with blinkers - Empire Maker has not given him all he has.

"He's an extremely smart horse," Bailey said. "I equate him a lot to a young child that's very, very bright and spends his time in class daydreaming because he's done all the stuff the other kids are doing. It's going to be a pretty good trick for Bobby to outfox him."

Empire Maker, like his mother, Toussaud, has been a chore to train for Frankel. On some mornings, Empire Maker will stop on the track and refuse to move forward. At Gulfstream, before his Grade 1 Florida Derby victory, Empire Maker tried to bolt out of one of the gaps. Before the Wood, he acted up during a schooling session at the gate. Last Saturday, Empire Maker simply stopped on the track, delaying his final Gold Cup workout by several minutes.

"It's not good for my stomach," Frankel said. "I thought he was over it."

Following Saturday's workout, Frankel said Empire Maker was bored and decided to change up his routine. This week, Empire Maker has trained at the training track for a change of scenery. This was a similar move to one Frankel made leading up to the Belmont Stakes.

Frankel said he hoped Empire Maker would have accomplished more by now. But he has not surrendered his belief that Empire Maker is gifted.

"He's that good," Frankel said. "Things just didn't work out."

There's still time.