If Empire Maker wins the Wood Memorial Stakes with authority, he will verify that he is America's leading 3-year-old and the clear-cut favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
If he doesn't win convincingly, confusion will reign.
The $750,000 event at Aqueduct is one of three major prep races Saturday, along with the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. But Empire Maker is the only colt among all the entrants who has a special aura about him and has the potential to be the sport's newest star. Some of the 3-year-olds running in Kentucky and Arkansas may prove to have talent, but they don't have Empire Maker's glamour.
Today's races took on added significance after last weekend's prep races proved inconclusive. The field for the Santa Anita Derby looked on paper like a strong group, but the narrow victory of Buddy Gil seemed to suggest that neither he nor any of the colts behind him will be earning a blanket of roses on May 3. The leaders were all weakening noticeably at the finish, and the speed figure for the race was hardly Kentucky Derby material. The California horses were outshone, surprisingly, by Ten Most Wanted, who won the Illinois Derby in a fast time, but he defeated such a weak field that most handicappers still view him skeptically.
Empire Maker had already been listed No. 1 in the Daily Racing Form's ranking of Derby contenders, and his position became even stronger after the Santa Anita Derby. But he still has a lot to prove.
Empire Maker has been a much-talked-about colt since the outset of his career. He has a regal pedigree; he is trained by Eclipse Award-winning Bobby Frankel and ridden by the country's leading jockey, Jerry Bailey. Yet in the first three starts of his career, he failed to live up to the hype. Skeptics were beginning to suspect that he was a phony until he came to Gulfstream Park for the Florida Derby and a confrontation with the accomplished speedster Trust N Luck. Empire Maker blew his rival off the track, winning by nearly 10 lengths.
The skeptics could note, correctly, that the performance wasn't as powerful as the winning margin might suggest; Trust N Luck went badly off form in the race, and Empire Maker won with a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 that was solid but not astronomical. Nevertheless, it was good enough to vault to the head of the 3-year-old class and to make Frankel optimistic about his chances in both the Wood and the Derby.
Of Empire Maker's seven rivals at Aqueduct today, only the front-running Funny Cide would seem to have a remote chance to pull an upset -- if he can steal off to an uncontested early lead. The favorite's real obstacle will be the racetrack, which should be muddy after heavy rain saturated it yesterday. "I'm concerned about the mud because he has never run on it or trained on it," Frankel said. Even so, he is sufficiently confident that he doesn't expect Bailey to ask the colt for an all-out effort. "We want to win the Wood Memorial," he said, "but we want to have a horse left for the Kentucky Derby."
The day's other stakes -- which will be televised live on an NBC pre-Derby special from 4:30 to 6 p.m. -- appear much more competitive that the Wood. The principal contenders in the Blue Grass are Peace Rules and Badge of Silver, who last faced each other in the Louisiana Derby in March. Badge of Silver went into that race hailed as a potential superstar; the speedster had won his three previous starts by a combined total of 26 lengths. But after breaking from the outside post position, he never got to the lead, and the Frankel-trained Peace Rules -- who had previously been considered a grass specialist -- beat him decisively. On a Keeneland track that traditionally favors speed, Badge of Silver has an excellent chance to turn the tables and restore his tarnished reputation.
The field for the Arkansas Derby is large and contentious, but most of the horses with stakes credentials have earned them in weak races -- such as Region of Merit, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, and Eugene's Third Son, runner up in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park. Defrere's Vixen hasn't won anything of consequence, but he has been competing against tough rivals such as Peace Rules and Badge of Silver in Louisiana; he has a plausible chance to pull an upset. But neither he nor anybody else has much of a chance to upstage Empire Maker as the day's biggest star.