Haskin says Empire Maker had a "near-perfect" Derby prep in the Wood Memorial.

Haskin says Empire Maker had a "near-perfect" Derby prep in the Wood Memorial.

Adam Coglianese

Steve Haskin's Road to the Kentucky Derby: Let the Frankel Follies Begin

If you think this year's road to the Kentucky Derby has been a bizarre one, imagine how scrambled your brain would be right now if Bobby Frankel hadn't brought some semblance of normalcy to the proceedings.

Now that the final preps are over, with the exception of the Lexington Stakes, it is hard to believe that there are no more than 14 or 15 horses pointing for the Derby. And the vast majority of those have question marks surrounding them. In other words, there will a lot of guessing and gut feelings involved when the time comes to pick a winner, or even exacta horses to back up Empire Maker.

As of now, those likely for the Derby are Empire Maker (Jerry Bailey), Peace Rules (Edgar Prado), Funny Cide (Jose Santos), Brancusi (Tony Farina), Buddy Gil (Gary Stevens), Ten Most Wanted (Pat Day), Sir Cherokee (Terry Thompson), Kafwain (Pat Valenzuela), Atswhatimtalknbout (David Flores), Indian Express (Tyler Baze), Offlee Wild (No rider), Fund of Funds (Shaun Bridgmohan), and Supah Blitz (Rosemary Homeister). Possibilities include Eugene's Third Son (Shane Sellers), Region of Merit (Eibar Coa), and Ministers Wild Cat, although there is a good chance Eugene's Third Son and Ministers Wild Cat will await the Preakness. Of course, a few more could come out of the Lexington, such as Scrimshaw, Ocean Terrace or Most Feared, but it seems highly unlikely at this point that we'll have a full field of 20.

Empire Maker established himself as a solid favorite for the Derby with his near-perfect prep in the Wood Memorial. The son of Unbridled overcame an outside post and a muddy track, and could have won by open lengths had Jerry Bailey stepped on the gas at any time. Bailey took a peek over his left shoulder at the quarter pole, then looked over his right shoulder. All he did in the stretch was throw a little cross on the colt and take another look back at the eighth pole. Empire Maker seemed almost bored by the turn of events and started looking around and drifting in a bit. He began tossing ears around, and stuck out his right ear as if something in the grandstand caught his attention. At that point, he jumped back onto his left lead, and when Funny Cide tried to battle back, Bailey gave the colt a light backhander with the stick against his saddlecloth. That little wake-up call got Empire Maker's attention and he put his ears back and maintained his advantage to the wire. At no point, did Bailey put the colt to any pressure, which is just what Frankel was looking for.

Empire Maker, despite the cakewalk, still managed to close his last two fractions in :24 2/5 and :12 4/5 over a sealed, muddy track, and his final time of 1:48 3/5 was excellent, especially considering he was trained lightly up to the race and didn't even gallop over the track. If the colt still has any flaws, it's that he could be a bit more professional. But he's still maturing, and even though he worked up a touch of lather at the gate and looked as if he were going to be a problem to load, he actually went in with no trouble. But there is still a question how he'll handle the gate on Derby Day. We really don't know the quality of the horses he's defeated, but Funny Cide does at least provide a good line with Peace Rules and Kafwain.

Frankel, who has had the Triple Crown in his sights for a long time, is bringing this talented colt up to the Derby exactly as planned. Frankel is like a pool player. He feels confident he can sink the next ball, but he wants to make sure he has the cue ball (in this case Empire Maker) in position for a follow-up shot. In short, he's been looking at this year's Triple Crown as a long-range project, not simply winning the Derby. Billy Turner did it the same way with Seattle Slew in 1977.

As for Peace Rules, it is astounding watching the stretch run of the Blue Grass to think that he closed the last three-eighths in :40 2/5. When horses close that slowly, they usually are laboring, and you can tell from watching them that they're staggering home in slow time. Peace Rules looked like a strong horse in the final furlong as he accelerated away from Brancusi, who had headed him nearing the eighth pole. That can only lead to the conclusion that the track was very tiring. Although the sprint times on the day were respectable, the two-turn races all were extremely slow. And it was the closing fractions that made them slow. For example, Peace Rules went his first three splits in :23 2/5, :23 3/5, and :24.1/5 before slowing down dramatically.

It is possible he simply was tiring badly. But if he was, how tired were the horses who were strung out over 50 lengths behind him? The feeling here is that the time was not a good gauge on the merits of the race, and it was not nearly as bad as it appears.

Also remember that Peace Rules' saddle slipped early on, and you can see Edgar Prado sitting up over the colt's neck the whole way, with the saddle pushed forward. After the finish, Prado looked back to make sure he was in the clear, then steered Peace Rules to the outside fence, just in case, and let him gallop out from there.

One image to remember from the gallop-out was Offlee Wild winding up a sixteenth of mile ahead of Peace Rules and Brancusi, with Pat Day strangling the horse, trying to get him pulled up. This is a horse who missed the Florida Derby due to an illness and worked very slowly (5 furlongs in 1:03 3/5) for the Blue Grass. That may have been over-compensation for the brutal :57 2/5 work he turned in three days before the Fountain of Youth that no doubt hurt his chances. The son of Wild Again needed this race badly, and his third-place finish, beaten 8 lengths, was actually a step in the right direction. Ferdinand was beaten 7 lengths in his final Derby prep in the Santa Anita Derby; Gato del Sol was beaten 5 1/2 lengths in the Blue Grass; Unbridled finished third, beaten nearly 4 lengths in the Blue Grass; and Thunder Gulch and Sea Hero both finished fourth in the Blue Grass. So, don't get down on Offlee Wild for this performance. He could improve big-time off it. And don't forget that classy, distance-loving female family of his.

You certainly can't throw out Brancusi, who just keeps getting better with each race since being put on Lasix. The son of Deputy Commander is an awesome-looking individual – big and powerful, with a long, graceful stride and a classy look about him. It appeared as if he had Peace Rules' number in midstretch, but he wasn't quite ready to beat a horse of this caliber on a notorious inside speed track like Keeneland. Like most everyone, we don't know much about Tony Farina, only that he has a great seat on a horse, and looked like a Hall of Fame rider getting Brancusi out of the 8-hole and putting him in a great position going into the clubhouse turn. Although Kent Desormeaux and other jocks criticized him for coming in and causing interference, the replay shows he did nothing to cause any interference, and remained well clear of the inside horses. It was brilliant race-riding. Whatever crowding and bumping that did occur, it was not caused by Farina, and the other jocks were badly mistaken if they thought it was.

He had been the leading apprentice rider in France, but he was too light to get top-class mounts and wound up riding mostly lightly weighted horses in handicaps. Last November, he called Patrick Biancone, inquiring about the possibility of riding for him in America. Biancone gave him a chance and the youngster impressed him immediately. What impressed Biancone the most was that Farina had the proverbial clock in his head and was a great judge of pace. Asked about how he'd handle the Derby atmosphere, Biancone said he's very cool and level-headed, and should have no trouble handling the pressure of the Derby. From what little we've seen so far, this is a promising young rider who looks like a veteran out there.