HALLANDALE, Fla. - Bobby Frankel might be the top trainer in this country, but he's one lousy handicapper.
The day before the Florida Derby, contested yesterday at Gulfstream Park, Frankel said that Empire Maker, his promising horse, couldn't beat Trust N Luck, his main rival in the $1 million race.
"Me as a handicapper," Frankel said, "if I had to bet, I'd tap out on Trust N Luck."
If Frankel had bet, then he would be one destitute gambler, because Empire Maker not only devoured Trust N Luck, but he also romped to the biggest winning margin in Florida Derby history.
The regally bred colt, for whom greatness has been almost a given, won the 52nd Florida Derby by 9 3/4 lengths, easily smashing the mark of six lengths by Plugged Nickel in 1980.
"He just ran a good race and ran to his potential," said an understated Frankel of his lightly raced colt.
Empire Maker won with such authority that he will likely leapfrog to the top of the Kentucky Derby contenders list. He has it all: a four-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer in Frankel, a six-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey in Jerry Bailey, and a pedigree that screamed greatness from before his wobbly feet ever touched the ground.
His sire is Unbridled, who won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, and his dam is Toussaud, who has produced Grade I stakes winners Chester House, Honest Lady and Chiselling.
Frankel said Garrett O'Rourke, farm manager of Juddmonte Farms, perhaps the preeminent breeding operation in Kentucky and the breeder of Empire Maker, told him: "You're going to win the Kentucky Derby in 2003."
He meant, obviously, with Empire Maker.
"He was born to run a mile and a quarter," Frankel said, referring to the demanding distance of the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May.
Empire Maker had to run only 1 1/8 miles in the Florida Derby. Fitted with blinkers for the first time, he broke quicker than he had in his previous three races, of which he had won only one. He probably could have challenged for the lead, but Bailey, his jockey, let three speedsters battle around the turn as he tucked Empire Maker in along the rail from their 6 post.
Trust N Luck, the even-money favorite, shot into the lead, followed by Midway Cat and Formal Attire. Empire Maker settled into fourth, right behind them. He gained down the backstretch, dispatched Midway Cat and Formal Attire on his outside, and then swung wide around the far turn to confront Trust N Luck.
They matched strides at the head of the stretch. Then Empire Maker began drawing away until he passed under the wire with Bailey pumping his fist.
As the 2-1 second choice, Empire Maker paid $6.20 to win. His winning margin was impressive, but his time of 1 minute, 49.05 seconds was merely the fourth fastest in the past 10 runnings.
Trust N Luck held on for second, and Indy Dancer rallied from way, way, way back for third. The exacta paid $7, the trifecta $34 and the superfecta $119.60.
Supah Blitz, Senor Swinger and Formal Attire completed the order of finish. After contesting for the lead, Midway Cat fell around the far turn. The handsome brown colt broke his right front leg and was euthanized.
Jorge Chavez, his jockey, was transported to the hospital, complaining of back pain. X-rays were negative, and Chavez should be fine, a hospital spokesman said.
Frankel had said during the week that Empire Maker would probably run next in the Wood Memorial Stakes on April 12 at Aqueduct. But after the colt's commanding victory, Frankel said he might train him up to the Kentucky Derby.
The traditional way to train a Derby winner is to run him once in April. The last Derby winner who didn't race in April was Needles in 1956. He won the Florida Derby on March 24 and then waited six weeks for the Kentucky Derby. Empire Maker would have a seven-week wait.
If Empire Maker doesn't compete again before the Derby, then that race would be only his fifth start. The last horse to win the Derby after being so lightly raced was Exterminator in 1918.
NOTE: Frankel and Bailey also teamed to win the Grade III $150,000 Swale Stakes with Midas Eyes, who romped by 9 1/4 lengths in only his third start.