02/04/2003 1:00AM

Season-bow time for Empire Maker


ARCADIA, Calif. - All systems are on go for the 3-year-old debut of Empire Maker, who was one of the most talked-about members of his crop before he ever raced. Bobby Frankel trains Empire Maker, the likely favorite Friday at Santa Anita in the $75,000 Sham Stakes at 1 1/8 miles. Six are expected for the Sham, in which Empire Maker will start for the first time since a troubled third-place finish Nov. 30 in the Grade 2 Remsen at Aqueduct.

"He's pretty fit, I think he's going to run a good race," Frankel said Tuesday. "The distance is not an issue - he'll probably never run under a mile and an eighth."

Empire Maker, widely touted even before his winning debut Oct. 20 at Belmont, returns with a strong work pattern, and his third-place Remsen finish (beaten 5 1/2 lengths by Toccet) was better than it looks. He did not break well, made at least two moves during the race, and, just when it looked like he would be distanced, he produced a good late run for third.

It was a superb performance for a colt meeting seasoned winners in just his second start, and it stamped Empire Maker as a horse with the potential to deliver on the hype. Jerry Bailey will ride Empire Maker, whose Sham rivals will include Man Among Men, up until now a turf specialist; Spensive, winner of a Golden Gate stakes; Ten Most Wanted, facing winners after an eight-length maiden win; and Truckle Feature, a front-runner who placed twice in graded stakes last year.

The sleeper in the Sham may be Storm Gulch, beaten more than 10 lengths by Domestic Dispute in Grade 2 Santa Catalina Stakes on Jan. 18. Storm Gulch is expected to improve Friday when he makes his second start back. The Santa Catalina was Storm Gulch's first start in three months, first against winners, and first for trainer Patrick Biancone.

"He ran okay. It was a big step from what he had done before," Biancone said. "He's going to be better. We're only in February. We're trying to have them peak in April or May, not now." Storm Gulch looked good working four furlongs in 47.20 seconds Tuesday at Santa Anita, though Biancone admitted he will have his hands full in the Sham: "If Empire Maker is as good as they say, he's going to be tough to beat."

Trainer Neil Drysdale said Ministers Wild Cat, runaway maiden sprint winner Jan. 11, would skip the Sham.

Composure looking good for return

Another promising 3-year-old makes a comeback this week at Santa Anita - the filly Composure returns Sunday in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes. Winner of the Oak Leaf Stakes and runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and Hollywood Starlet, Composure was visually impressive Tuesday during a solid five-furlong workout exercise rider Dana Barnes. Her time was 58.80 seconds, second-fastest work of the morning. "She's doing good," said trainer Bob Baffert.

Composure will be ridden by a well-traveled jockey. Jerry Bailey will be at Santa Anita for Empire Maker on Friday, return to Gulfstream Park to ride Allamerican Bertie on Saturday in the Grade 3 Sabin Handicap, then board another plane and return to California to ride Composure on Sunday.

At least six are expected for the one-mile Las Virgenes, which is considered a two-filly showdown between Composure and Elloluv, winner of the Hollywood Starlet and seven-furlong Santa Ynez on Jan. 20. Others expected are Favola, a European sprint import; Maddie's Charm, a stakes winner from northern California; Watching You, runner-up in the Santa Ynez; and Puxa Saco, beaten favorite in the Santa Ynez.

Valenzuela to ride Sightseek in La Canada

Bailey's commitment in Florida on Saturday leaves open the mount on Frankel-trained Sightseek, who will stretch out to two turns Saturday at Santa Anita in the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes. Only five fillies are committed to 1 1/8-mile race for 4-year-old fillies, in which Got Koko will try for her third stakes win of the meet. She won the seven-furlong La Brea and 1 1/16-mile El Encino. To win the La Canada, she will have to catch Sightseek, a filly who could be loose on the lead.

Pat Valenzuela, who has ridden four of Frankel's 10 winners at the meet, picks up the mount on Sightseek. The match is perfect. Valenzuela is among the best speed riders in California, and Sightseek catches a field that came up short on pace. Runner-up in the seven-furlong Santa Monica on Jan. 25, Sightseek has raced two turns only once in her six-race career (with four wins), but may have the lead to herself in the La Canada.

In addition to Sightseek and Got Koko, the field is expected to include Bare Necessities, Bella Bellucci, and allowance turf filly Revenante. Got Koko worked five furlongs Tuesday in 1:04.80.

Siberland heading to San Rafael

Siberland, who finished second to Robledo as the favorite in Saturday's Turf Paradise Derby, is traveling this week to Santa Anita to prepare for the $200,000 San Rafael Stakes at one mile on March 1.

Saturday's loss ended a four-race winning streak for Siberland, but he might not have been at his best. His trainer, Kevin Lewis, said Siberland bruised his left front foot the day before the race and had to compete with a protective bar shoe.

Lewis made the admission reluctantly, fearing it would be seen as more of a knock on the winner than an excuse for Siberland.

"I don't want to take anything away from Robledo. My horse got beat," Lewis said from Turf Paradise. "But we had to put a bar shoe on that foot. I'm also not sure how fit my horse was. He didn't get enough out of his first two races this winter at Turf. He came up a little short."

Lewis said he wanted to get Siberland to Santa Anita as soon as possible in order to give him as much training time as he could at this track. He said he did not think Siberland would need the bar shoe for the San Rafael.

* Affluent, winner of the Santa Monica, breezed a half-mile in 50.40 seconds Tuesday. Trainer Ron McAnally said Affluent, a 5-year-old mare, will skip the Santa Maria on Feb. 16, and train up to the Grade 1 Santa Margarita on March 9. By then, the 2002 Horse of the Year, Azeri, is expected to have resumed serious training, a fact not lost on McAnally. "I have to be aware of her the rest of the year. If she's as anything like she was last year, we'd best stay away from her."

- additional reporting by Jay Privman