Updated on 09/17/2011 11:24AM

Least-hyped horse is clearly the best bet


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Empire Maker is the cynosure of the 129th Kentucky Derby, its only entrant with an aura of glamour and the race's heaviest favorite in more than a decade. Many of his admirers talk as if the outcome of the Derby is a foregone conclusion and are already speculating whether the regal colt can win the Triple Crown.

This is a distorted view of Saturday's race. It is not a one-horse race. It is a two-horse confrontation: Empire Maker vs. Ten Most Wanted.

The colts have very similar profiles. Both started their careers last fall and both have raced five times. Both were initially disappointing but began to peak at the optimal time. Both have displayed similar levels of ability in their best efforts. Empire Maker won the Florida Derby with a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 and the Wood Memorial Stakes with a 111. Ten Most Wanted earned a 110 winning the Illinois Derby. Both colts possess solid distance-running pedigrees suggesting that they will be effective at 1 1/4 miles.

The principal difference between the two colts is hype.

Empire Maker has been a much talked-about horse before he ever ran. Trainer Bobby Frankel said publicly in 2002 that he was going to win the Derby with a son of the stallion Unbridled and the mare Toussaud. The colt's reputation remained intact even after he lost the first two stakes races of his life. When he rebounded to win the Florida Derby by more than nine lengths, and followed that with an easy triumph in the Wood, he was hailed a potential superstar.

He might turn out to be one - particularly with a trainer of Frankel's skill behind him. But any such judgment is absurdly premature. What has Empire Maker accomplished? He won the Florida Derby over Trust N Luck, who had a good record before the race but was going badly off form. (He ran very poorly in his next start, the Lexington Stakes.) Empire Maker's competition in the Wood Memorial appeared negligible, and he prevailed by a half-length over Funny Cide, who is still winless as a 3-year-old. He has run respectably fast, but his speed figures are no faster than those of top Derby contenders in most recent years. (Last year War Emblem came into the race with a 112 figure - and got no respect.) Empire Maker is a good colt, but he hardly deserves to be considered an invincible favorite.

It is understandable that his main rival Saturday has received relatively little respect. Ten Most Wanted had not distinguished himself before he ran in the Illinois Derby, which appeared to be the weakest of the prep races for the Kentucky Derby. When he finished strongly to win by four lengths over a mediocre group, there were few immediate shouts of acclaim that this was a potent Derby contender. What gave Ten Most Wanted credibility was his speed figure.

At first glance, it appeared implausible that Ten Most Wanted had run exceptionally well, and that the second- and third-place finishers had run the races of their lives, too. Was this an aberration? Racetracks are sometimes souped up before important stakes races, producing a deceptively fast time. But the speed of the Hawthorne track seemed consistent throughout the day, and the Illinois Derby figure made sense for all of the horses who finished in the middle of the pack. (For example, the Maryland colt, Cherokee's Boy, earned a figure of 89 finishing 13 lengths behind Ten Most Wanted. He had run an 88 in his previous start and came back to win his next race with a 92.) The figure of 110 is completely legitimate. And it means that Ten Most Wanted is just about as good as the ballyhooed Empire Maker.

It is hard to make a convincing case for anybody else. I eliminate all of the California invaders who ran in the Santa Anita Derby; that was a slow race and the leaders were staggering at the finish. I eliminate Scrimshaw; trainer Wayne Lukas can't pull a rabbit out of a hat this time. I wasn't impressed by Peace Rules's bias-aided victory in the Blue Grass Stakes at speed-favoring Keeneland.

Funny Cide has an outside chance; he earned a speed figure of 110 finishing second to Empire Maker, though his pedigree is suspect. Sir Cherokee's rally in the Arkansas Derby was visually impressive - it was the type of move that often wins the Kentucky Derby - but his bloodlines are questionable at 1 1/4 miles, too. Brancusi has the best longshot chance; he endured difficult trips in his last two starts and could get into the trifecta at odds of 30-1 or more.

The winner, however, will be either Empire Maker or Ten Most Wanted, and the choice between them is an easy one. Whether the race in question is the Kentucky Derby or the first at Pimlico, no horseplayer should ever bet a horse whose odds are shorter than they deserve to be. Racing fans may root for Empire Maker to emerge from the Derby as the sport's bright new star, but Ten Most Wanted is the one to bet.