03/17/2003 1:00AM

Say, who was that hooded horse?


HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - From his defeat in the Remsen last November to his start in Saturday's Florida Derby, Empire Maker and his popularity were a mystery to me. I was hard on him, in print and at handicapping seminars around the country. Perhaps the fact that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth had something to do with it. For those of you expecting a mea culpa in the wake of Empire Maker's overwhelming score in Saturday's Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, I have this to say:

Forget about it.

There will be no apologies, because the Empire Maker who won the Florida Derby so impressively had to be an impostor. He certainly was not the same Empire Maker who made his first three starts under that name. The Empire Maker who won the Florida Derby by a record 9 3/4 lengths was not the same one who lost to a turf horse with suspect dirt form in the Sham Stakes, or the one who was a thoroughly beaten third with no excuse in the Remsen, or the one whose only previous victory came at the expense of maidens in New York, none of whom has come back to win, even in maiden claiming races. That Empire Maker - despite his lofty reputation and the supreme confidence of trainer Bobby Frankel - wouldn't have found the Florida Derby's winner's circle with a head start and a road map.

No, the Empire Maker seen on Saturday delivered the kind of knockout performance that only Badge of Silver in the Risen Star had approached this year, the kind of performance that those interested in the 3-year-old picture had worried they would not see this year. His stunning transformation cannot be attributed to the painfully thin composition of this Florida Derby field. The field was disappointing, falling well short of the standards for this important race. But that wasn't it. Without any other reason for Empire Maker to explode the way he did, his race comes down to one thing:


Sometimes, in trying to become a handicapping sophisticate, it is easy to lose sight of some of the basics. And Handicapping 101 teaches that few, if any, reported changes in a horse's profile can have as profound an impact on performance as the addition of blinkers. Empire Maker raced with blinkers on Saturday, and profound falls well short of an accurate description of his improvement.

Instead of the horse who ran only in spots in the Sham, the blinkered Empire Maker was completely focused Saturday. Instead of being a victim of pace as he was in the Remsen, the blinkered Empire Maker was in the game early and ready to go after the heavily favored pacesetter, Trust N Luck, any time he wanted. Instead of being an overhyped underachiever, the blinkered Empire Maker became the exciting 3-year-old we had all hoped would surface.

The difference between the pre-Florida Derby Empire Maker and the blinkered Empire Maker is so stark that they are almost two distinct horses deserving of two separate past performances. Don't worry, that won't happen. But the old Empire Maker deserved the skepticism. The new one deserves to be applauded.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

I was a bit more on target concerning Domestic Dispute, who was the most significant disappointment in Sunday's San Felipe at Santa Anita. A key to his victory in the Santa Catalina in January was that he was dealing with two sprinters stretching out to a distance that they wanted no part of. But he had a much tougher task Sunday, despite being sent off the favorite. He was exposed, finishing fifth behind Buddy Gil, who, despite his narrow decision, still has a lot more to prove before he can be taken seriously as a legitimate threat for the Kentucky Derby.

Of course, the horse everyone will be latching on to out of the San Felipe is Atswhatimtalknbout, who fell a half-step short of nailing Buddy Gil. Atswhatimtalknbout did not race last year at 2, and even though that may be a technicality (according to published reports, he was twice close to making his first start sometime during 2002), the fact remains that the last time a horse won the Kentucky Derby who did not race at 2 was 121 years ago, when Apollo managed to do it in 1882. Moreover, given the likelihood that Atswhatimtalknbout probably wants and needs his final Derby prep to come in the Santa Anita Derby, he will have had five starts this year before he heads to Louisville. That may well be too much racing in too short a period of time.

Then again, so far, this year's road to the Derby has been wacky.