09/20/2004 11:00PM

Imperialism back rested, fine-tuned

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Imperialism works with more balanced blinkers than he wore winning the San Vicente.

Imperialism will be the most proven horse in Saturday's Grade 2, $500,000 Super Derby at Louisiana Downs, but there are a couple of challenges he must overcome. Not only will Imperialism be making his first-ever start following a layoff, he will also be wearing a new set of blinkers, which is significant because his vision in his right eye has long been impaired.

If there is a horse willing to step up to the challenges, it is . He had a whirlwind campaign this spring after being purchased out of Florida by Steve Taub, who turned him over to up-and-coming 22-year-old trainer Kristin Mulhall. He won the Grade 2 San Vicente and the Grade 2 San Rafael in his first two starts in Southern California, and then was placed second after finishing third in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. Imperialism went on to run third in the Kentucky Derby and fifth in the Preakness Stakes, his last start, on May 15.

The success forced Mulhall to delay changing blinkers on Imperialism, something she had wanted to do for a while. It can be difficult to change what's working, and often stewards hesitate to allow changes in equipment on a horse who is winning. For those reasons, Mulhall has waited since the San Vicente in February to make a blinker change with Imperialism.

In February he was outfitted with a full cup blinker on his right eye, which is sunken and leaves him unable to see behind him on that side. His rail eye, or left eye, is normal and was left open for the race.

"We threw those on him in the San Vicente," said Mulhall. "He won, and we had to run him back with that blinker, even though we didn't want to. We had to because he was winning. And then once he got to the Derby," it was not the time to tinker with equipment, said Mulhall.

So on Saturday, she will outfit Imperialism with a full set of blinkers. They will be semi-cup, or half-cup, in size, and will open up his right eye some, and add coverage to his left eye.

"It's to keep him going more in a straight path," said Mulhall.

Imperialism had ducked to the inside in some of his races, a result of his impaired vision. He cannot see horses approaching him on his right side until they are right up on him, said Mulhall. But the new blinkers will open that eye up to a degree, enhancing vision.

"He should be more competitive that way," said Mulhall.

Imperialism has dealt with the sunken eye his entire life.

A normal horse's eye, said Taub, "protrudes out of the head," whereas Imperialism's right eye "sits like a human eye, inside the bone. The other is outside the bone. He can't see behind him with the one eye. When he tries to, he turns his head."

Despite the handicap, Imperialism has never backed off from a fight. He has run first, second, or third in 11 of his 17 starts, and has earned $522,605. Following the demands of 11 starts at 2 and back-to-back Triple Crown races, he was given some time off at a farm in Southern California.

The plan was to turn him out for a week, said Taub.

"Kristin went down to hang out with the horse and said, 'Steve, this horse is so happy, let's give him another week,' " said Taub. "She went down a couple more times, and the same thing happened."

So seven days of turnout became 35, and the time has served Imperialism well, according to his connections. He has turned in some strong works for his comeback, his latest a seven-furlong move in 1:24.40 last Saturday at Santa Anita under former jockey Corey Black.

The drill came in the new equipment Imperialism will wear in the 1 1/8-mile Super Derby.

"We've been working him in the blinkers, and he's been working really, really good with them," said Mulhall.

She also feels good about his fitness level coming into the race. Earlier this year, she had toyed with the idea of putting Imperialism - who is out of the same mare as multiple turf stakes winner White Beauty - back on turf for the $400,000 Del Mar Derby on Sept. 6. But in the end, she and Taub passed the race and decided to wait a few more weeks and make a comeback in the Super Derby.

"We talked about the Del Mar Derby," said Mulhall. "But he wasn't 100 percent dead fit, and with a horse like Blackdoun in there, you have to be 100 percent. We decided the best thing would be to get him 100 percent and run him here."

Down the road, Taub and Mulhall are looking at the Strub series at Santa Anita for Imperialism. But the plan could be adjusted after Saturday, according to Taub.

"Let's just fantasize for a moment and say he prevails impressively," said Taub. "You've got another race in the Dallas area on Oct. 30. I'll leave it at that."