“The best horse I have ever trained.”
No finer tribute can be offered to Empire Maker than the verdict of his late Hall of Fame trainer, Bobby Frankel. But when news of the 20-year-old stallion’s passing came on Monday, immediate thoughts were of his value to the breeding industry. If his stud career has transcended his exploits on the racetrack, both are characterized by a sense of premature loss.
Empire Maker was that rare Thoroughbred who lived up to an ambitious, not to say audacious, name. A homebred for Prince Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte Farms, much was expected of a blueblood to whom many genetic talents had been entrusted.
His sire, champion Unbridled, turned the rare Kentucky Derby (G1)/Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) double in 1990. His dam, Toussaud, was an accomplished turf performer who scored her signature win in the 1993 Gamely (G1). Herself a daughter of dual classic hero El Gran Senor, a once-beaten champion in England and Ireland, Toussaud was already off to a fine start as a broodmare when she visited Unbridled.
Empire Maker was still a baby when half-brother Chester House captured the 2000 Arlington Million (G1) and Grade 1-winning half-sister Honest Lady missed by a half-length in that November’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1). In 2002, half-brothers Decarchy (Frank E. Kilroe Mile [G2]) and Chiselling (Secretariat [G1]) had enhanced Toussaud’s status as the dam of four graded winners by the time Empire Maker made his debut.
High hopes for Empire Maker weren’t based just on his bloodlines. Dr. John Chandler, then head of Juddmonte’s North American division, recalled in a Blood-Horse article upon the colt’s retirement:
“From day one, he looked the part of a champion…so much so that many of us on the farm had a future book (Kentucky) Derby wager on him long before he started.”
Empire Maker was also showing Frankel quite a bit in his early training as a juvenile. The Hall of Famer pitched him alongside a certain older stablemate – Medaglia d’Oro, one of that season’s elite 3-year-olds as the Travers (G1) winner and Belmont (G1) near-misser – and the youngster passed the test.
Hence the word had been out on Empire Maker well ahead of his Oct. 20, 2002, unveiling at Belmont Park, where he ran up to his 2-5 favoritism with a stylish 3 1/2-length victory. His first two stakes attempts, however, resulting in frustrating losses. Third in the Remsen (G2) after a troubled start, the newly turned sophomore settled for a belated second in the Sham (G3). Was Empire Maker inheriting dam Toussaud’s idiosyncratic tendencies along with her raw ability?
Blinkers made all the difference next time in the Florida Derby (G1), as Empire Maker secured better early position and delivered a knockout blow by 9 3/4 lengths. The dark bay promptly made it two straight in the Wood Memorial (G1), prevailing over Funny Cide by a measured half-length.
Despite an ill-timed foot bruise going into the 2003 Kentucky Derby, Empire Maker was dispatched as the 5-2 favorite to emulate his sire. The setback proved too much to overcome, though, and the game Funny Cide held sway by 1 3/4 lengths from a subpar Empire Maker.
Frankel had him back on song for the Belmont rubber-match. Funny Cide, who had aired in the Preakness (G1), carried the sentimental hopes of fans eager to end the Triple Crown drought. But a healthy Empire Maker was now in his element in the 1 1/2-mile Test of the Champion. Stalking the front-running Funny Cide early, he was still on the bridle when taking over on the far turn. Ten Most Wanted challenged to make it interesting, but Empire Maker always appeared to have his measure, and Hall of Fame pilot Jerry Bailey made sure to keep him to task.
Sadly, we saw Empire Maker only once more, in the Jim Dandy (G2). Held up farther off the pace, he got going too late and fell a neck shy of catching Strong Hope. The Saratoga reverse ended up being an anticlimactic ending to his career. Frankel skipped the Travers when Empire Maker was showing signs of getting sick, a foot flare-up ruled him out of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), and he was retired to stud.
His record of 8-4-3-1, $1,985,800, is only a preface to what he might have accomplished with a full career. Although I’ll go to my grave saying that Empire Maker was the superior horse, voters sided with his rival Funny Cide for the divisional Eclipse Award.
Empire Maker’s first crop featured such Grade 1-winning daughters as Mushka, Acoma, Country Star, and Icon Project, presaging his siring a Hall of Fame distaffer in Royal Delta. The three-time Eclipse Award champion, and two-time Breeders’ Cup heroine, bankrolled more than $4.8 million.
A top classic prospect came in Empire Maker’s second crop with multiple Grade 1 star Pioneerof the Nile. His Derby dreams ended in the Churchill Downs slop behind Mine That Bird in 2009, and Pioneerof the Nile wound up second like his sire.
But Pioneerof the Nile would make amends in the best possible way – by siring the horse who finally fulfilled Triple Crown dreams that had been 37 years in the making. His son American Pharoah swept the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont in 2015 and signed off in a blaze of Breeders’ Cup Classic glory. The champion freshman sire of 2019, American Pharoah promises to extend the sire line for years to come. Other young sons of Pioneerof the Nile at stud include Cairo Prince, champion Classic Empire, and the versatile Midnight Storm.
Another son of Empire Maker also parlayed classic placings of his own into a Derby victory at stud. Bodemeister, runner-up in the 2012 Derby and Preakness, sired 2017 Kentucky Derby hero Always Dreaming in his first crop. Always Dreaming, about to enter his second breeding season, will try to establish a cadet branch of the Empire Maker line.
Although Empire Maker had produced solid dividends in those initial years, he was sold to Japan in 2010. The rise of American Pharoah prompted his repatriation in 2015, thanks to Gainesway Farm and Don Alberto’s teaming up.
His first foals sired at Gainesway just hit the track last season, and already Empire Maker was back in the headlines. His colt Eight Rings – a Bob Baffert trainee like American Pharoah, Pioneerof the Nile, and Bodemeister – romped at Del Mar and later, fittingly, in the American Pharoah (G1).
But 2019 was also a heartbreaking one for the sire line, with the untimely death of Pioneerof the Nile at the tender age of 13. That conjured up sad memories of Royal Delta, who was also gone much too soon. Finally in foal to Galileo in her third season as a broodmare, she died of foaling complications in early 2017. Her offspring, a filly, thankfully survived. Now named Delta’s Royalty, the Roger Varian trainee won at first asking at Kempton on Dec. 5, and she sports classic entries in the Irish 1000 Guineas (G1) and Irish Oaks (G1).
Future star in action. 🌟
— Breeders’ Cup (@BreedersCup) December 5, 2019
As a broodmare sire, Empire Maker is responsible for reigning Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (G1) winner Arklow, who will run in Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) en route to the Sheema Classic (G1) on Dubai World Cup night; fellow Grade 1 scorers Separationofpowers and Outwork; and Canadian champion Avie’s Empire.
If this is Empire Maker’s North American record despite five breeding seasons (2011-15) spent in Japan, what might it have looked like with an uninterrupted U.S. residence? The book is far from closed on his legacy, so only time will tell what further treasures await discovery.
The same can’t be said for his racing career that will forever remain a “what might have been.”
Frankel deserves the last word, in a statement included in that aforementioned Blood-Horse story:
“We weren’t within 10 lengths of seeing this horse’s best race. With his prospects as a sire, considering his exceptional talent, extraordinary pedigree, and incredibly good looks, I want to be remembered as the trainer of Empire Maker in the same way that Horatio Luro’s name is attached to Northern Dancer or Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons’ name is with Bold Ruler.”