04/30/2003 11:00PM

Jog comes as relief to the crowd


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Watching Empire Maker jogging over the racetrack shortly after dawn on Thursday morning was a welcome sight for his legion of supporters. He doesn't have the prettiest way of going when he jogs, but he moved along willingly and seemingly unaffected by the foot bruise that has had the entire racing world holding its breath over the past 48 hours.

The appearance of Empire Maker highlighted Thursday's activity, which also included the first local sighting of Funny Cide, who arrived from New York late Wednesday afternoon. Outta Here was the only Derby starter to really stretch his legs, blowing out a quarter-mile down the stretch in 24.20 seconds.

With all the major preparatory work complete, the time has come to assess all 17 Derby hopefuls from observations made during the past nine days of training.

Atswhatimtalknbout has been eager to train each morning, tossing his head and playing around when entering the track and obviously feeling quite good about himself. He turned in one of the best Derby preps, working five furlongs in 59.54 seconds with the blinkers on Sunday morning and galloping out in a strong 1:12.41. His form has tailed off in his last two starts, but he seems more focused now with the addition of blinkers. He must be considered one of the major contenders.

Brancusi has trained in the relative anonymity of Keeneland and had an unconventional final Derby prep over the turf, an easy mile move in 1:44.68 during which he simply galloped around to the eighth pole before finishing very willingly when put to mild urging through the final furlong. He looks good, is on the improve, and should be regarded among the major longshot threats.

Buddy Gil flew a little under the radar gun this week, doing most of his training before dawn. He did emerge from the dark to work a sharp five furlongs on Monday under jockey Gary Stevens, going in 59.85 seconds while equipped in rings and under little to no pressure. He can't be left out of the mix.

Domestic Dispute has looked a bit short-strided during his gallops since he became a Derby candidate after being purchased privately last week. If Bob Baffert didn't think he was good enough to compete in this Derby, why should we?

Empire Maker: Until he came down with a minor foot bruise on Tuesday it was hard to find fault with the Derby favorite, whose gallops have been strong and and his final work extremely impressive. He ran a six-furlong drill around the turn in 1:12.72, in which he outfinished his stakes-winning stablemate Requete while seemingly doing little more than open-galloping. Obviously the foot problem has hung a cloud over his head, although if anything it will likely elevate his final price. He won't start if he's not 100 percent, and if he does start he's still the one to beat.

Eye of the Tiger would have had to do something dazzling this week to merit serious consideration, and he didn't. He appeared to take a couple of bad steps near the quarter pole while working five-eighths in 1:01.21 on Monday and may not be overly fond of the strip.

Funny Cide is one of the mystery horses, having arrived on the scene late Wednesday. He did look good on the track Thursday morning and reportedly turned in a sensational five-furlong work at Belmont earlier this week. He finished just behind Empire Maker in the Wood. He is a definite factor.

Indian Express put together two strong works within a five-day span and may be coming up to his best yet in the Derby. He easily handled stablemate Kafwain while under cruise control in both of those works and was merely breezing when he went five-eighths in 59.72 seconds on Tuesday before galloping out in a solid 1:12.81. He looks dangerous if he is allowed to relax on an early lead a la trainer Bob Baffert's reigning Derby champion, War Emblem.

Lone Star Sky: You can't fault his final Derby work, an easy five furlongs in 1:00.58 on Tuesday, although his gallop-out (1:14) was nothing special. Don't expect to see the kind of improvement necessary to put him in the class with many of these.

Offlee Wild has logged a lot of strong miles in the morning playing catch-up since getting sick in Florida this winter. On the watch he was impressive, going five furlongs in 59.16 seconds here Tuesday, but one must be concerned by the way he continues to drift off the rail during his works, forcing jockey Robby Albarado to take a handful of left rein to keep him from getting out even farther during the final furlong.

Outta Here has the look of a horse trying to recover from his long trip to Dubai. He hasn't shown anything that would suggest he will be among the contenders.

Peace Rules is a handful to jog and gallop in the morning, and his lone Derby prep did not go as planned. He began to drift out noticeably coming to the wire, and drifted even farther after his rider took a firm hold while completing the work into the clubhouse turn. One must wonder if his final work was just an aberration or an indication he has gone a bit over the top.

Scrimshaw has not trained in the same manner as the 2002 Lexington winner, Proud Citizen, who finished second in last year's Derby. He seemed to be galloping well enough from what could be seen under the cloak of darkness, but his lone work was very un-Proud Citizen-like, five furlongs in 1:02 with an uninspiring finish and almost nonexistent gallop-out. Don't expect the same kind of performance last year's Lexington hero gave.

Sir Cherokee did most of his training at Trackside, but he made a favorable impression working over this track on Tuesday, going an easy five-eighths in 1:00.38, although it would have been preferable to have seen a little stronger gallop-out than 1:14.08. He seems to be holding up well since his career-best effort in the Arkansas Derby, and he is eligible to be along for at least a share at a square price.

Supah Blitz has looked relaxed but strong in his gallops, and he did work a very fast half-mile when he hooked up with some unexpected company on Tuesday, completing his final quarter in 22 seconds and change. With the misfortune to draw a very unfavorable post, he is probably a minor player at best.

Ten Cents a Shine balked in his first attempt to work, and then had trouble getting past his stablemate, a maiden who will race on the Derby undercard, in his final prep, which, while very fast (58.72), was not as impressive visually. He doesn't seem to belong in here.

Ten Most Wanted is the now horse of this year's Derby. Has trained as well and as consistently as anybody here over the past 10 days. He was predictably rank and got away a little quickly in Monday's final prep, but he was able to gather himself and finish strong with long, powerful, ground-consuming strides. He looked like a million bucks galloping on Thursday. The only fault to find with him is the price, as he is certain to be grossly overbet and a solid second choice behind Empire Maker.