03/12/2003 12:00AM

Tipster claims he has a sure thing

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PHILADELPHIA - A very good friend of mine who happens to be a prominent person in the horse business had a message for me the other day.

"They should just send me my money now.''

My friend's identity will be protected, just in case he happens to be wrong. If he is right, I promise to reveal it not long after the Kentucky Derby.

A few minutes before they ran the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb.7, my friend got a nice-sized bet down on Empire Maker in the Derby future book. He got 10-1.

Empire Maker, the most hyped horse since Pegasus, promptly ran a disinterested second. The time wasn't particularly fast, the performance not terribly inspiring.

In three starts, Empire Maker has won a maiden race at Belmont last October, run third in the Remsen Stakes behind Toccet and Bham in November, and finished second in the Sham to Man Among Men. His Beyers were 84, 92, and 98.

"He's 10 lengths better than Peace Rules,'' my friend said.

How? Why?

Peace Rules, in case you missed it, upset Badge of Silver and Kafwain in last Sunday's Louisiana Derby. He got a 105 Beyer.

"Don't worry about it,'' my friend said. "Empire Maker is the Derby horse. He's got the breeding. He's got the scope. He's the big horse.''

But when will Empire Maker run fast?

"Saturday,'' my friend assured. "`Saturday.''

Saturday would be the Florida Derby at Gulfstream. Empire Maker will take on what appears to be a very tough field.

"No problem,'' my friend said.

How? Why?

"The horse is getting blinkers,'' he said.

Blinkers? Will they improve Empire Maker's Best Beyer by 10 to 15 points? Apparently.

Will they send a colt who has won only a maiden race into the winner's circle of a Grade 1 stakes? My friend thinks so. In fact, he is certain of it.

I know Bobby Frankel, who trains Empire Maker and what seems like every other fast horse in America, is the greatest trainer in the history of the world.

Wasn't that Frankel who sent out Peace Rules in Louisiana? Aren't America's most prominent racetracks considering making a Frankel mannequin to place in winner's circle pictures every time they run a serious stakes race? Why not just save the man the trouble of walking down from the box seats?

When I begged to know what he knew about Empire Maker that I did not, my friend laughed knowingly. The Kentucky Derby, he said, has already been decided. Empire Maker, he said, is a cinch.

When the pace gets hotter and most of the alleged contenders begin to fade at Churchill Downs, Empire Maker's inherent class will take over. The colt, he explained, just has not developed yet. But the development is coming and coming soon, he assured me.

Not that I am ever skeptical of anything I hear around the track, but Saturday really would be a good time to let the rest of us in on the secret of Empire Maker.