Bobby Frankel, who has indisputably become America's top trainer in the past few years, held court outside of Gulfstream Park's barn seven on Thursday morning during one of his rare visits to South Florida. "What do they mean 'Maybe this is Frankel's year?'" someone asked him, pointing at Wednesday's Daily Racing Form headline. "It's been Frankel's year for the last four!" No one could argue that statement, since Frankel has taken home the training Eclipse Award each year for the past three. But Frankel knew what the headline referred to. "They're talking about 3-year-olds and the Triple Crown," he said. Indeed, 3-year-olds and the Triple Crown are what bring the trainer to Florida, and he knows that the time has come for his talented colt Empire Maker to show his stuff in Saturday's grade I Florida Derby, at $1 million the richest prep race for Triple Crown hopefuls in the nation "This is my best Kentucky Derby (gr. I) shot," he said of Empire Maker, a strong statement considering that he also trains last weekend's Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner Peace Rules. "This is the horse that we felt all along was the one that could get us there and he should be starting to peak about now." Empire Maker, a son of 1990 Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled and a half-brother to four graded stakes winners, has been somewhat slow in development. Frankel attributes that both to his late foaling date--born April 27, 2000 at owner Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farm near Lexington, he is chronologically the youngest of the seven Florida Derby starters--and the trainer's style. "I don't bring horses to my barn too early and I don't run them early," he said. "I'm never really planning on winning a Triple Crown race. It would be great if it could happen, but I don't even look at it unless I have a special one." Empire Maker showed Frankel all along that he could be that special one, easily winning his debut at Belmont Park in October and working out on even terms with Frankel's grade I winner Medaglia d'Oro. But the colt has only had two winless starts since then, a pattern that would take most horses off the short list of Triple Crown contenders. Instead, Empire Maker has been installed as the 9-5 morning line favorite for Saturday's Florida Derby. "I'm putting the blinkers on him now and I expect that he will be more into the bridle early," the trainer says about the equipment change for Saturday's race. "I could have put them on earlier but I'm glad I didn't because he might have peaked too soon." Of drawing post position six, he said, "That should suit him well. It isn't too far outside and he should get a clean trip from there. Jerry has shoved him up inside twice before and he didn't seem to like it too much." He refers to jockey Jerry Bailey who has been aboard Empire Maker in all three of his starts and will once again have the mount on Saturday. "He's got the pedigree and he's got a start this year, so I don't foresee any excuses in this race," Bailey said. Following the Florida Derby, Frankel expects to send Empire Maker to New York to compete in the April 12 Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) and then, if all goes well, to Churchill Downs for the May 3 Kentucky Derby. Should he be successful, he will become the 20th Kentucky Derby winner to have prepped in the Florida Derby. "That has been the plan all along," Frankel said. All Systems Go for Trust N Luck
By contrast to Empire Maker, Trust N Luck, the morning-line second choice for the Florida Derby, has had plenty of starts--nine --and lots of stakes success. He has captured added-money races in each of his past three routing starts by a cumulative total of 21-lengths, including a 5 1/4-length tally in Gulfstream's Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. I) last month. With so much seasoning, trainer Ralph Ziadie has taken a relaxed approach to his training in the days leading up to Saturday's 1 1/8-mile race. "I'm not going to give him any fast works - we just want to do enough to keep him right where he is," said the trainer said. "We'll just give him an open gallop most every day from here on in." The Florida-bred son of Montbrook had his last strenuous exercise on Tuesday, working a two-minute lick over his home track at Calder Race Course. After walking the shedrow with Trust N Luck on Wednesday, Ziadie had him back on the track at about 5:30 a.m. Thursday for a 1 1/2-mile jog. His regular exercise rider Felicity Waugh was aboard. "He galloped really good which showed us he came out of the two-minute lick the other day in excellent shape," the trainer said. "Everything is right on schedule."