HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. -- After weeks of having scrounged around for a definitive early favorite, the Kentucky Derby finally found one Saturday when Empire Maker became the easiest winner in the 52-year history of the Florida Derby.
"I don't care whether he's the Derby favorite or not," said trainer Bobby Frankel after he and an impressed Gulfstream Park crowd of 24,055 saw Empire Maker win the $1-million race by a record 9 3/4 lengths. "All I know is that this horse is bred to go six miles. If he runs this kind of race, he probably could win the Kentucky Derby."
Going into the Florida Derby, Frankel was thinking about running Empire Maker one more time, in the Wood Memorial, before the Kentucky Derby on May 3, but after Saturday's cakewalk he suggested that Juddmonte Farms' well-bred colt might go into Churchill Downs race off workouts alone.
"This is a natural mile-and-a-quarter horse," Frankel said of Empire Maker, whose sire, Unbridled, won the Derby in 1990. "He was born to run. I don't think it would be too difficult to train him up to a mile and a quarter."
If Frankel does run Empire Maker in the Derby without another prep race, he would be flying in the face of plenty of Derby history. You have to go back to Needles, in 1956, to find a horse who won the Florida and Kentucky derbies without a race in between. Empire Maker has made only two starts as a 3-year-old, something no Derby winner has done since Sunny's Halo in 1983. And Empire Maker has only four starts, which matches him up with Exterminator, the 1918 winner, who was the last Derby winner in only his fifth race.
Empire Maker is that rare horse, a colt who appears not to have been over-hyped. Frankel became a cheerleader last summer, when Empire Maker worked three-quarters of a mile in company with Medaglia d'Oro at Hollywood Park and they finished only a head apart.
"The other horse went on to win the Travers, and Empire Maker hadn't even started yet," Frankel said.
In his first start, at Belmont Park in October, Empire Maker broke his maiden in a mile race. His next starts were at 1 1/8 miles. He ran third in the Remsen at Aqueduct in November, then in February, at Santa Anita, he was second to Man Among Men in the Sham Stakes.
At Gulfstream, a notorious speed-favoring track, Frankel outfitted Empire Maker with blinkers to get him focused on the speedy Trust N Luck, who won the Fountain of Youth here a month ago. Running fractions of 22 4/5 and 46 1/5, Trust N Luck set the pace under Cornelio Velasquez, but Empire Maker and Jerry Bailey were third and then second, never far from the front. With an eighth of a mile to go, Empire Maker passed his rival and barreled home, Bailey hitting him only twice with the whip. Showing his greenness, Empire Maker was late changing his lead foot, which helps a horse shift his weight. The colt didn't go from the left to the right lead until, after feeling Bailey's whip, he was two strides from the wire.
Bred and owned by a Saudi Arabian prince, Khalid Abdullah of Juddmonte Farms, Empire Maker ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:49, earned $600,000 and paid $6.20 as the second choice behind Trust N Luck at even money. Trust N Luck, who finished half a length in front of Indy Dancer, is still a Derby possibility, trainer Ralph Ziadie said. Supah Blitz finished fourth, followed by Senor Swinger and Formal Attire. Midway Cat, who was second after the opening half mile, dropped back and then, heading into the stretch he fell, breaking his right foreleg and was euthanized. His jockey, Jorge Chavez, was taken to a nearby hospital, where X-rays were negative. Listed in stable condition, Chavez complained of back soreness but was moving his feet and his vital signs were good.
"I was a little surprised Trust N Luck didn't show a little more speed," Bailey said. "He didn't seem quite as sharp, and I was kind of sitting on some high octane. Without the blinkers, he was a little hesitant, and Bobby had a feeling the blinkers would help and they did. It seems like this horse can go on as far as he wants."
In the last two weeks, Frankel has won two $1-million races -- Saturday's and the Santa Anita Handicap with Milwaukee Brew -- along with the $750,000 Louisiana Derby with Peace Rules, another candidate for the Kentucky Derby. Milwaukee Brew, like Empire Maker, was wearing blinkers for the first time.
Later on the Florida Derby card, Bailey rode a third Frankel 3-year-old, Midas Eyes, to a 9 1/4-length win in the $150,000 Swale Stakes. Midas Eyes, making his first start since Gann bought him, hadn't run since August, but he covered seven furlongs in 1:21, breaking the stakes record, 1:21 3/5, set by Seeking The Gold in 1988.
Changing his mind, Frankel said that Medaglia d'Oro will not run in the $6-million Dubai World Cup on March 29. The colt had been scheduled to leave for the United Arab Emirates on Saturday.