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Empire Maker’s Foot a Favorite Subject

Times Staff Writer

Empire Maker may still run in the Kentucky Derby, as his trainer professes, but questions about the race favorite’s status will take Bobby Frankel right up to post time. A bruised foot, disclosed Tuesday at Churchill Downs, has hung a cloud over Empire Maker, and given his 16 rivals a window of hope that yet one more Derby upset might be in the offing.

Empire Maker, winner of the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial and expected to be the shortest-priced Kentucky Derby favorite in a dozen years, will walk the shed row at Frankel’s barn here today, instead of galloping around Churchill’s one-mile oval. Frankel characterized this change as a mere blip on the colt’s training schedule, suggesting that if this weren’t the Derby, Empire Maker’s right front foot would not be an issue. By Saturday around 6:05 p.m., Louisville time, everybody will know for sure.

Horses sometimes walk instead of galloping before races, and Frankel pronounced Empire Maker fit a few days ago. Buddy Gil, the Santa Anita Derby winner, walked the shed row Tuesday, but he had worked five furlongs Monday. Empire Maker had his final pre-Derby workout Sunday, when he covered six furlongs in a useful 1:12 3/5. Then Tuesday, when Frankel took him out for a jog of the track, he noticed that his horse was “a little stiff” in the problematical leg.

The exercise went according to schedule, and later Frankel said, “If there had been a problem, I wouldn’t have taken him out there. You can never be 100% sure in this business, but I’d say that I’m 98% sure that he will run.”

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Frankel said that he changed today’s routine from a gallop to a walk on the advice of Ken Reed, a veterinarian tending to Empire Maker. Because of the bruise, which occurred while the colt was winning the Wood at Aqueduct on April 12, one of Empire Maker’s horseshoes was cut away and filed to relieve pressure on the foot. Empire Maker, a half-length winner over Funny Cide, was drifting in during the final strides of the New York race.

Empire Maker’s foot will be soaked in a mixture of hot water and Epsom salts. No X-rays were taken.

“This is no big deal,” Frankel said. “Things like this happen every day.”

When post positions are determined today, a field of 17 is expected, but it will not include Kafwain, who suffered a ligament injury to his right foreleg after working five furlongs Tuesday in :59 3/5. Kafwain would have been one of the Derby’s richest starters, with earnings of $715,848, but enthusiasm for his ability to run 1 1/4 miles dimmed when he ran second in the Louisiana Derby and third in the Santa Anita Derby.

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Kafwain’s defection will prevent the Thoroughbred Corp. from trying to win the Derby for the second year in a row. Bob Baffert, who saddled War Emblem for his Derby victory last year, still has a shot with Indian Express, an intriguing Utah-bred whose career began in Panama. In his second start for Baffert, and the fourth race of his career, Indian Express was second to Buddy Gil in the Santa Anita Derby. A horse hasn’t won the Derby off only four starts since Exterminator in 1918.

Indian Express, running in company with Kafwain on Tuesday, finished a head in front and was given the same workout time as his stablemate.

"[Kafwain’s injury] didn’t look bad, but you can’t chance it,” Baffert said.

Besides Indian Express, the field for the 129th Derby is expected to include Empire Maker, Peace Rules, Buddy Gil, Atswhatimtalkabout, Brancusi, Domestic Dispute, Funny Cide, Offlee Wild, Outta Here, Scrimshaw, Sir Cherokee, Supah Blitz, Ten Most Wanted, Eye Of The Tiger, Lone Star Sky and Ten Cents A Shine. There’s a good chance of rain Friday, but the track should be fast Saturday.

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In the event Empire Maker doesn’t run, the favorite’s role will go to his stablemate, Peace Rules, who won the Blue Grass, or Ten Most Wanted, winner of the Illinois Derby.

Steve Norman, the blacksmith tending to Empire Maker, brought back memories of Unbridled’s Song, one of 22 Derby favorites to fail in the last 23 years.

Norman also worked on Unbridled’s Song, who finished fifth in the 1996 Derby after suffering a cracked hoof while winning the Wood. He was a son of Unbridled, the 1990 Derby winner. So is Empire Maker.

*

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129th Kentucky Derby

* When: Saturday.

* Where: Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

* TV: Channel 4.

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* Post: 3 p.m. PDT (TV coverage starts

at 2 p.m.)

* Post draw: Today, 2 p.m. PDT, ESPN.


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