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THE KENTUCKY DERBY | Today at Churchill Downs, Louisville,
Ky., 3 p.m., Ch. 4

History Lesson

Empire Maker is the clear choice in a race full of neophytes, but only one betting favorite has finished first in the last 23 years

May 03, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This shapes up as the wannabe Kentucky Derby. Eight of the 14 trainers have never started a horse in the race. Six of the 16 jockeys are Derby rookies. Nine of the 16 horses have never won a graded stakes race, and only three of them have ever won a Grade I. So, the 129th Derby, to be run over a fast track at 3:04 p.m. PDT today, has boiled down to Empire Maker et al.

Even frank Bobby Frankel has been caught up in the Empire Maker mania. If they know what's good for them, trainers of Derby favorites are circumspect, giving visitors to the barn the time of day -- literally -- and little else. That's not Frankel.

"The script's been written," he said Friday morning, after Empire Maker had done a do-si-do with his exercise rider at the start of a 1 1/4-mile gallop. "This horse was meant to win. But they [presumably, the racing gods] don't want me to have too easy of a time beforehand."

Empire Maker, winner of the Grade I Florida Derby and Wood Memorial, is 6-5 on the morning line, and for more than a generation that alone has been 2 1/2 strikes against a Derby horse. In 2000, favored Fusaichi Pegasus won the Derby, the first post-time choice to score since Spectacular Bid in 1979. Since Fusaichi, two more longshots -- Monarchos and War Emblem -- have won, so the tally is 23 years, one winning favorite. Frankel and Empire Maker would appear to be in need of some rare generosity from those racing gods.

Frankel has a second horse running today, the afterthought Peace Rules, winner of the Louisiana Derby in March and the Blue Grass Stakes in April, but Peace Rules has been eclipsed by his better-bred stablemate in the Derby build-up. Peace Rules is 8-1, the third choice on the morning line, and figures to be one of the speed factors.

Before the Louisiana Derby, Frankel told Peace Rules' owner, Ed Gann of Rancho Santa Fe, to stay home because they were mostly running for second or third money. Gann watched from California, and after Peace Rules surprised even his trainer at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Frankel figured the best reason for running in the Derby was that his longtime client "would finally get a chance in the race." But since the Blue Grass, Frankel has made at least a mild case for Peace Rules.

"He's a hard trier," he said. "On his pedigree, he doesn't figure for mile and a quarter, but if he turns for home in front, it'll be tough getting by him."

Only two trainers in the race, Bob Baffert and Wayne Lukas, have won a Derby.

Lukas, who has won four, most recently with Charismatic in 1999, has Ten Cents A Shine, a 50-1 shot, and Scrimshaw, a late-blooming colt who won the Charismatic prep, the Lexington, at Keeneland two weeks ago.

Baffert, who won his third Derby in the last six when War Emblem stole the race a year ago, has had a tough year. Vindication, the undefeated 2-year-old champion, was waylaid by injury, and Kafwain came out of the Derby when he went wrong only three days ago. Baffert is left with Indian Express, another colt with up-front speed, who was a gritty second, beaten by only a head, against Buddy Gil in the Santa Anita Derby.

Except for Jerry Bailey on Empire Maker, Gary Stevens on Buddy Gil, Kent Desormeaux on Outta Here and Pat Day on Ten Most Wanted, the jockeys all are looking for their first victories.

So what's a rider like Tony Farina doing in a place like this?

Farina, 23, is a project of Patrick Biancone, a fellow Frenchman and the trainer of Brancusi, who was second, but well behind Peace Rules, in the Blue Grass. Farina, who learned the trade at a riding school near Chantilly, moved from France to Santa Anita last fall, with scant success.

He has won six races this year, but he may know more about Derby history than any other rider in the race. Earlier in the week, he spent several hours in the Kentucky Derby Museum, on the Churchill Downs grounds, watching dozens of Derby runnings on video. Day, who won the Derby with Lil E. Tee in 1992, has ridden in the race 20 times, the last 19 in succession, but his streak appeared in jeopardy earlier in the week. Something about coming in second best to a trash bag and a dumpster at his home, the outcome a strained back. Day took three days off, returned to the saddle Friday, and is headed for No. 20 in a row.

Bailey may be racing's premier rider right now, and he might already have won the Derby twice, but Empire Maker will be only the second favorite he has ridden in the race. It was Bailey who recommended to Frankel, two races back, that Empire Maker be fitted with blinkers to sharpen his focus. Victories in the Florida Derby and the Wood have ensued.

Blinkers or not, Empire Maker was distracted during his scheduled gallop Friday morning.

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