October 21, 2010

Remembering ... Empire Maker

"Empire Maker is the best horse I have ever trained," said his trainer Bobby Frankel. "We weren't within 10 lengths of seeing this horse's best race." Strong words coming from a man who trained countless top horses in his Hall of Fame career. To understand this kind of great respect given to a horse who only raced eight times, you must start from the beginning.

I find it impossible to remember Empire Maker without first thinking of his parents. The mating of Unbridled and Toussaud was a match made in heaven. A Kentucky bred homebred for Juddmonte Farms, Toussaud, by El Gran Senor, was a top class turf female of the early 90‘s. Most notable of her American races was a win in the Grade 1 Gamely Handicap and a fantastic battle she gave the great Flawlessly, in a losing effort, in the 1993 Matriarch Stakes. Toussaud began her racing career in England, where she was also a group winner before coming to the U.S. Once in California, Toussaud was trained by Bobby Frankel. I remember her a hard knocking mare that fired every time. As a broodmare, she may have been even better. Besides Empire Maker, Toussaud produced grade I winners Chester House, Chiselling, and Honest Lady, as well as grade 2 winner Decarchy, and was named Broodmare of the Year in 2002. Her mate in 2000 was Unbridled. The winner of my all-time favorite Kentucky Derby, as well as the Breeders’ Cup Classic of 1990, Unbridled was all class. Like Toussaud, the Eclipse Award winning son of Fappiano may have been even better in the breeding shed. Despite dying of colic at a young age, Unbridled was one of the most prolific sires at the end of the 20th century with 48 stakes winners, including siring a different winner of all three legs of the Triple Crown, in Gridstone, Red Bullet, and Empire Maker.

It can be difficult to make a big impression in only eight lifetime starts but that is precisely what Empire Maker was able to do. In fact, he made an impression before he ever raced. So impressed with the beautiful bay colt, many surrounding Empire Maker placed future book wagers on him for the 2003 Kentucky Derby before he had run in his first race. It would be no surprise then when the Frankel trained juvenile made it to the track for the first time, he would be bet down in a big way. Sent off at odds of 2-5 in a maiden race at Belmont on October 20, 2002, Empire Maker cruised to an easy win under jockey Jerry Bailey. He was instantly tabbed on everyone’s short list of early Kentucky Derby contenders. The breeding, the looks, the talent, this young colt seemingly had it all. I also jumped on his bandwagon after the one race.

Flash forward to the following Spring at Gulfstream Park. Prior to the 2003 Florida Derby, Empire Maker had just a maiden victory to his credit. From the beginning, Frankel and Juddmonte had only one thing in mind for this fantastic specimen. The First Saturday in May had always been the plan. Accordingly, he was brought along slowly, and in fact had only two starts since his maiden win. Third in the Remsen, and then second in the Sham Stakes, Empire Maker had shown potential in both races, but now only seven weeks from Louisville, it was time to put up or shut up. Adding blinkers for the first time in the Florida Derby, Empire Maker proved that the plan was working, and then some. With one powerhouse quarter mile, he drew off in the grade 1 race and suddenly all of his great potential was reality. Empire Maker won the Florida Derby by 9 ¾ lengths that day, and he was now a strong favorite to give Bobby Frankel his first Kentucky Derby winner. There would be one more race before the Derby, four weeks later in the Wood Memorial.

On a muddy Aqueduct strip, Empire Maker used the Wood Memorial as the last prep for the 129th Kentucky Derby. Confidently ridden, Empire Maker hit the wire one half length ahead of new rival Funny Cide, with the rest of the field far back. I remember all the discussion after the race … had Funny Cide really given Empire Maker everything he wanted, or was the Juddmonte colt just toying with his competition and saving something for the Derby? We would soon find out in Louisville.

Unfortunately, the great plan to have Empire Maker peak at Churchill Downs developed a hitch. On Tuesday before the derby, Empire Maker would suffer a foot bruise. Sent off at the highest odds of his career, but still a clear favorite at 5-2, he would run a fine race in the Run for the Roses. Fine was not good enough as Funny Cide improved off his strong Wood Memorial effort to take home the Derby. Empire Maker was second best, 1 ¾ lengths short of glory. Was the bruise the reason for his loss? Funny Cide ran huge, but still you have to wonder knowing how good Empire Maker could be. With no Triple Crown possible, Frankel decided to rest his star and take another shot at Funny Cide in five weeks.

Empire Maker’s day in the son would come ironically on a sloppy track, as heavy rains left the Belmont Park oval sloppy for the Test of Champions. Funny Cide, who had romped at the Preakness in Empire Maker’s absence and was trying to become racing’s 12th Triple Crown champion, went out early in an attempt to lead his foes on a twelve furlong merry chase. Empire Maker would not let the favorite have an easy lead though, and sat within a length of Funny Cide. When rider Jerry Bailey asked for his charge to make his move, Empire Maker quickly moved to his rival on the far turn. The Derby and Preakness winner tried to fight back, but could offer little resistance to the talented son of Unbridled. It would be rally of the Illinois Derby winner Ten Most Wanted who would provide the only challenge to Empire Maker in the stretch. The Juddmonte homebred would have plenty left to hold off Ten Most Wanted by three-quarters of a length, while the Triple Crown hopeful finished a well beaten third. My thoughts after the race included disappointment in not having a Triple Crown winner, but also thinking the best horse had won.

After the Belmont, Empire Maker had regained most of his lofty reputation and new big plans were laid out for him. First, he would use Saratoga’s Jim Dandy as his return to the races and prep race for the Travers. Heavily favored, his only competition appeared to be streaking front runner Strong Hope. Sitting well off the early pace, Empire Maker would be left with too much to do in his first race since the marathon in the Belmont. He would come with a valiant run on the outside to finish second by a quickly diminishing neck to the resilient Strong Hope. A great prep, but it would prove to be a prep for nothing. Setbacks occurred before both the Travers and then the Jockey Club Gold Cup. As valuable as he would be as a sire, no chances were taken.

Empire Maker was retired from racing and was sent to stand for a lofty fee of $100,000 at Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms in Kentucky’s Bluegrass. Passing on his wonderful bloodlines, Empire Maker has already proven a sire of top class, siring numerous stakes winners from his first few crops, including recent winner of the Grade 1 Spinster Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic contender, Acoma. While only the sky is the limit for Empire Maker as a stallion, who knows how good he could have become as a race horse. His career was brilliant but brief, leaving fans wondering what might have been. I remember you Empire Maker.


Unknown said...

oh i remember Empire Maker in the Belmont..i loved him

J. Renee said...

Thoroughbreds don't get to lookin any better than that. Classic.

Anonymous said...

When did Frankel declare Empire Maker the best he had trained? Before or after Ghostzapper? That's key.

Brian Zipse said...

Frankel made that declaration after Empire Maker's retirement. Ghostzapper was the same age as Empire Maker, but the statement was before Ghostzapper's four-year-old season when he was Horse of the Year.

Anonymous said...

I remember back in 2003 when I was just 12 years old hearing about Empire Maker being the next great horse. Heck, his name even sounded like one of a superhorse. That sentiment unfortunately was short lived. It's a pity his career was cut so short. I would've loved to see him take on Mineshaft in 2003. I believe had he continued racing until the Classic he would have been Horse Of The Year.

NetworkEmpowerment said...

I loved this horse :) He was the first horse I really fell in love with. I know racing yearned for a TC winner, but that is a year I could not help but to cheer for Empire Maker in the Belmont. I wish they had kept him around longer, he could've been something special.

SaratogaSpa said...

I felt that Jerry Bailey ran a perfect ride on Empire Maker that day at Belmont. It was almost as Jerry knew it was his duty to try to beat Funny Cide and not have him him win the TC.