04/30/2003 11:00PM

Until they enter the starting gate . . .

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Kentucky Derby favorite is injured on the eve of the rose run and the racing world holds its collective breath.

It is the story of the day, and an old story at historic Churchill Downs, which offers the chance of a lifetime, but only once. If you miss it, there is no second chance.

There have been so many incidents, and so many good horses affected. Native Dancer, one of the best ever to run in this classic, arrived in Louisville by rail from New York. Three days before the the 79th Derby in 1953, he tied up. Frantic veterinary work dealt with the blockage and the Gray Ghost was sufficiently comfortable for his interests to go ahead with their plans. Native Dancer went off at 3-5, was roughed at the first turn by Money Broker, and was beaten a head when unable to overtake the pacesetting Dark Star. It was his only defeat in 22 starts.

Sir Gaylord, an outstanding 3-year-old of 1962 and a solid favorite for the 88th Derby, blew out three furlongs the morning before and trainer Casey Hayes was pleased. But cooling out at the barn later, Sir Gaylord took some bad steps,and it was discovered that he had fractured a sesamoid. Hayes went to the train station to tell owner C.T. Chenery that Sir Gaylord's racing career was over.

"Casey, I feel so sorry for you," Chenery replied.

Calumet Farm's Gen. Duke was brilliant in beating Bold Ruler in the Florida Derby of 1957 and equaling the world's record for nine furlongs. He bobbled, however, in a prep race at Keeneland, and for several days his trainer, Jimmy Jones, suspected a bruised foot. X-rays revealed a fracture, causing Jones to scratch Gen. Duke from the Kentucky Derby. His stablemate Iron Liege remained in the race and registered one of the great upsets at 8-1, beating Gallant Man, Round Table, Bold Ruler, Federal Hill, and others in an outstanding field.

Gen. Duke subsequently developed the dreaded wobbles and died.

Now there is news of Empire Maker's bruised foot, which apparently originated recently in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. The foot hasn't prevented trainer Bobby Frankel from completing Empire Maker's preparation for the Derby. Empire Maker missed a day of training in the subsequent 24 hours, but Frankel said that would not concern him. He also said he will not start Empire Maker in the Kentucky Derby if there is anything amiss.

What can reasonably be expected from Empire Maker under the circumstances? Quite a bit if he starts. He has considerable talent and may be able to succeed at less than his best, though this is not an ideal situation. Frankel has managed his powerful stable with great effectiveness in recent years, compiling an enviable record. He has a real appreciation of the horses he develops and would not endanger any of them for the sake of a race, even the Derby.

No horse is a cinch in the Derby. The charts show an unbelievable series of beaten favorites, including such distinguished runners as Holy Bull, Hansel, Easy Goer, and Point Given. Those who saw Empire Maker in the Florida Derby or the Wood Memorial, however, will find it difficult to bet against him.

We also see at least half a dozen alternatives. Buddy Gil, Indian Express, and Atswhatimtalknbout, all from the Santa Anita Derby cast, have done enough to earn respect and can take advantage of opportunities. Peace Rules, Bobby Frankel's "other" horse, comes off four consecutive stakes victories and seems to be moving forward.

Scrimshaw has attracted attention both training and racing with high purpose. D. Wayne Lukas, who has trained four Derby winners, expects Scrimshaw to give a good account of himself when he runs for the roses.

Ten Most Wanted is another very attractive prospect and has come to hand rapidly in recent weeks for the knowledgeable Wally Dollase.

Which of these colts has the best chance? The one who enjoys the best trip has the edge, for luck seems to be as important as skill in such matters.