OZONE PARK, N.Y., April 13 (UPI) -- Empire Maker solidified his status as the Kentucky Derby favorite Saturday, holding off Funny Cide to win the $750,000 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
It was three years ago that Fusaichi Pegasus romped to victory in the Wood Memorial before heading to Louisville three weeks later and becoming the only favorite in the last 23 years to win the Kentucky Derby.
On May 3, Empire Maker, which won by one-half length, will try to become the latest horse to break the favorite's jinx and provide trainer Bobby Frankel with his elusive first Triple Crown victory.
Frankel also could have a second candidate in Peace Rules, who later in the day won the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Kentucky.
Frankel has won the last three Eclipse Awards as top trainer, and saddled horses that have won more than $135 million in purses, but the one thing that is missing is a Triple Crown victory. He has failed to win in eight tries, including an 0-for-4 mark in the Kentucky Derby.
Empire Maker could be his best shot.
The son of 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled was coming off a whopping 9 3/4-length win in the Florida Derby, and was the overwhelming 1-2 favorite.
Heavy rain fell in New York all day Friday and early Saturday, and Frankel expressed concern, since Empire Maker had yet to race, work or gallop over a wet surface. With Jerry Bailey aboard, Empire Maker managed just fine in the mud, covering the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.70.
"I guess he can handle the off track," Frankel said. "He was focused, and he is getting better every time out. Jerry had a nice hold of him at the end."
Frankel warned beforehand that the Wood Memorial was just a stepping stone, and that the main goal was to have Empire Maker at his best three weeks from Saturday.
Bailey followed those instructions perfectly.
Breaking from the outside eighth post, Empire Maker jumped out quickly before settling behind the pack led by New York Hero.
Bailey waited patiently and took the lead from Funny Cide at the eighth pole. Empire Maker eased up momentarily as Funny Cide gained ground before Bailey gave his horse a nudge near the finish.
"Once he broke well, we knew he was fine," said Bailey, who claimed his first win at the Wood. "My job was to get the job done and leave something for Louisville. I let him goof off a bit. If I had gotten into him, we would have won by more."
Empire Maker paid $3.10, $2.50, and $2.10. Funny Cide returned $4.40 and $2.10, and Kissin Saint showed for $2.10.
After Empire Maker dominated the Florida Derby on March 15, Frankel toyed with the idea of training his horse all the way up to the Kentucky Derby, but the Brooklyn-born Frankel reconsidered, and has his horse ready for Churchill Downs.
"The timing of this race worked out well," Frankel said. "That's why we picked it."
The Grade I Wood Memorial has served as a worthy stepping stone to Churchill Downs. Eleven Wood winners have won "The Run for the Roses."
Owned by Saudi prince Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms, Empire Maker wore blinkers for the first time, and appeared comfortable. Among those impressed was Bob Baffert, who last year won the first two legs of the Triple Crown with War Emblem.
"He's a very good horse," Baffert said. "Sometimes in muddy conditions, horses don't give their best effort with the dirt flying in their face. It didn't affect him. He ran a great race."
Baffert saddled Senor Swinger, who settled for fifth behind New York Hero.
"We didn't learn anything about him today," said Baffert, who hinted that Senior Swinger would be taken off the Kentucky Derby trail.
At Churchill Downs, Baffert will run Indian Express and Kafwain, who competed last week in the Santa Anita Derby.
Frankel's day got even better when Peace Rules won the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes in Kentucky.
Making just his second start as a three-year-old, Peace Rules won the 1 1/8-mile race in 1:51.6, the slowest winning time in 15 years. The slow finish left Frankel wondering if the horse would be able to cover the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby.
"He's a game horse, but distance is a question mark," Frankel said. "You never know."
The other notable prep Saturday was the Grade II Arkansas Derby, where Sir Cherokee was the surprise winner of the 1 1/8-mile race in 1:48.39. The 50-1 long shot paid $113.20, $33.60, and $13.20.
Favorite Eugene's Third Son was second in a mediocre field. Region of Merit, who was looking for a fifth straight victory, was fourth.