Juddmonte Farms' Empire Maker confirmed his credentials as this year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) consensus choice with a calculated half-length victory in Saturday's $750,000 Wood Memorial (gr. I) in the mud at Aqueduct Park.
The son of Unbridled, under a hand ride from jockey Jerry Bailey, took the lead from Funny Cide near the eighth pole and appeared to be cruising to the wire when the dark bay colt unexpectedly switched leads and drifted in bit. Funny Cide, down on the inside with Jose Santos riding, came back on as they neared the wire, forcing Bailey to nudge Empire Maker with his whip close to home.
Kissin Saint was 7 1/2 lengths farther back in third, with pace setter New York Hero fourth. The time for the 1 1/8-mile Wood was 1:48 3/5 on a muddy track.
Bailey said he could have won with more ease.
"That is exactly what we wanted to get out of this race. I knew as soon as we broke that he would handle the surface. I didn't want to get into any trouble, and being in the outside post, we didn't.
"He always has a tendency to get distracted. If I hit him, he would have gotten back into it, but I let him goof off a little bit. If I had really gotten into him, and we would have won by more, it would have defeated the purpose of saving something for the Kentucky Derby (May 3 at Churchill Downs)."
Starting on the far outside of the field of eight, Empire Maker settled in third away from the gate. New York Hero and Norberto Arroyo jumped to the lead from the extreme inside post and veered from the rail, squeezing Kissin Saint, who lost several lengths, and Funny Cide, who recovered to settle behind the pacesetter. New York Hero clicked off fractions of :23 2/5, :47 1/5 and 1:11 while allowed to run on a lone lead over Funny Cide and Empire Maker, who was about three lengths behind as they hit the final turn.
As they swung out of the turn, Funny Cide hit the front with Empire Maker closing easily on the outside. Bailey never moved on the winner until he started to come in during the final stage. Funny Cide turned in a game runner-up effort.
"If he hadn't run as well as he did, it would have taken pressure off of going to the Kentucky Derby," said Funny Cide's trainer, Barclay Tagg. "Now, we have to go. At a mile and a quarter, he just might beat that other horse (Empire Maker). Funny Cide showed a lot of maturity today. I couldn't be happier."
"The New York-bred ran a gutsy race," he said. "He tried to stay with Empire Maker, but the winner was much the best -- though my horse was the only one with him at the end. My horse just keeps coming back as the races get longer. Who knows? Perhaps a mile and a quarter could be his distance."
Empire Maker, who is trained by Bobby Frankel, earned $450,000, with his second straight grade I victory. Winner of the Florida Derby (gr. I) by 9 3/4 lengths on March 15, it was his third triumph in five career races and pushed his winnings over the $1 million mark to $1,115,800.
"We took him to the gate twice and it looks like that helped," Frankel said. "He broke better than ever today. He answered a lot of questions. He showed he's very tractable.
"Jerry gave me a few anxious moments, but you could see what he wanted to do. He didn't want to bottom him out for this race. He tried to make him win as easy as possible without taking too much out of him. When Jerry hit him, that's when he switched back to his left lead. I think when he watches this tape, Jerry's going to learn a lot, too. Everybody's learning with this horse.
"Today was the first time he was fairly quiet in the paddock. He's a young horse and he's still learning. He ran a great race and the second horse ran a great race, but this is a special horse."
Bailey said he's delighted with the colt's progress.
"I've been excited about this horse since I first got on him last fall," Bailey said. "He's handled everything thrown at him so far. He's still got some things to learn. He's like a kid at seven, eight, nine and 10.
"I got into him when we were going by the last horse at Gulfstream (in his Florida Derby victory) and he took off. I didn't want him to draw off by nine today and tried not to hit him when we were going by Funny Cide. I didn't want to be sorry three weeks from now in the Derby. I just tapped him here. He put that horse away on his own. I didn't ask him for much. You've really got to sting him for him to take off.
"He was looking to the grandstand in the stretch. It's natural for a horse to go to the inside when they do that. He's learning and progressing the right way. I asked him for just enough to stay
in front. This was an ideal prep."
Sent off at 1-2, the winner paid $3.10, $2.50 and $2.10. Funny Cide returned $4.40 and $2.10. Kissin Saint's show price was $2.10. The $2 exacta was worth $11.40.