Brisnet Betting Guide Exclusive by Ren Carothers
This column appeared in last week’s edition of the Brisnet Betting Guide.
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Estimated read time of 10 min.
With recent news of the passing of Empire Maker, I felt inspired to write about the loss. Researching the finer points of his career as both a racehorse and sire, I came to the realization that I might only be able to essentially echo the articles already published in his wake. It crossed my mind to switch gears and focus on another topic, but, ultimately, I felt it more important to add this humble contribution to the growing and glowing memorial of recognition amassing at the figurative marker of Empire Maker.
Unbridled builds the foundation
The name could not be more fitting, though he started out perhaps better described as heir apparent. His towering sire, Unbridled, bred by Tartan Farm’s esteemed John Nerud, won hearts as he won the 1990 Kentucky Derby (G1), for the victory produced one of racing’s most enduring visuals. Trainer Carl Nafzger dutifully served as play-by-play analyst throughout the race for owner, 92-year-old Francis Genter, whose eyesight was failing. Increasingly, he found himself overcome with emotion as his own proclamations of, “He’s gonna win! He’s gonna win,” which elicited endearing hand-to-mouth gasps and knuckle biting from the petite Mrs. Genter, evolved into, “He’s the winner! He’s the winner!” At this, she tearfully fell back into his embrace, and the two shared a chaste, but emotionally charged kiss, and he continued on, after planting another kiss on her head, “You won the Kentucky Derby. Oh, Mrs. Genter, I love you.”
Unbridled would next run second in the Preakness (G1), fourth in the Belmont Stakes (G1), and later, win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) against older horses, displaying guts by splitting Ibn Bey and Thirty Six Red.
He was named 1990’s Eclipse champion 3-year-old colt, and though he only picked up one stakes race at four, he still retired to Gainesway off a gallant third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and with an impressive overall record, in the money in 20-of-24 starts, 8 of those victories, and nearly $4.5 million in earnings.
There’s something poetic about Unbridled, who had inspired such a pure, intimate outpouring of joy, going on to produce a sire line which would be responsible for the racing world erupting in unabashed celebration, wherein strangers were, in an instant, united in fellowship bearing witness to the coronation of American Pharoah, the sport’s 12th Triple Crown champion, who brought a 37-year drought to an end.
…the only 3-year-old colt of his generation to pick up three Grade 1s, was also the only horse to come through with the win in one of the Triple Crown classics for the five-time Eclipse champion, Hall of Fame trainer…
Twelve years before Pharoah crossed the wire in the Belmont Stakes, it was his grandsire, Empire Maker, over a sloppy track, upsetting the Triple Crown bid of Funny Cide, who would finish third behind Ten Most Wanted that day.
Empire Maker, bred and owned by Juddmonte, and trained by Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, won half of his eight starts, was second three times, and third in the Remsen, in which he bobbled and was checked. Triumphs include a 9 3/4-length romp in the Florida Derby (G1) (a race Unbridled had also seized), followed by a half-length victory over Funny Cide in the Wood Memorial (G1). This led to the colt being installed as the 6-5 morning line favorite in the Kentucky Derby, in which Funny Cide turned the tables, with Empire Maker settling for second. Some pointed to a bruised foot making headlines earlier in the week as a possible excuse for the defeat, but following the race, jockey Jerry Bailey felt he changed leads correctly, so didn’t see it as a problem. Funny Cide’s jockey, Jose Santos, expressed that he had seen vulnerability in the Wood Memorial. Empire Maker, while victorious, looked pretty spent in his opinion, which highlights all the more how difficult a bid for the roses can be.
Whatever explanation led to Empire Maker’s Kentucky Derby runner-up performance, after vindicating himself in the “Test of the Champion” he would go on to come up a neck short in the Jim Dandy (G2), miss the Travers (G1) due to illness, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup with the foot injury problematic again. We were left to wonder just how good he really could have been.
At the time, Frankel was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “Empire Maker is the best horse I have ever trained. We weren’t within 10 lengths of seeing this horse’s best race.” This praise was especially compelling, considering he also had multiple Grade 1 winner Medaglia d’Oro and future Hall of Famer Ghostzapper in the barn at the time. It’s also worth noting that Empire Maker, the only 3-year-old colt of his generation to pick up three Grade 1s, was also the only horse to come through with the win in one of the Triple Crown classics for the five-time Eclipse champion, Hall of Fame trainer.
With nearly $2 million in earnings, Empire Maker took up stud duties at Juddmonte in 2004, priced at a whopping $100,000. Not only did he bring a solid race record to the table, and not only was he a son of a classic champ in Unbridled, who sired Unbridled’s Song in his first crop, but he also offered a prolific female family.
His dam, Grade 1 winner Toussaud, also trained by Frankel, finished in the money in 13 of 15 starts, seven of those wins, including the 1993 Gamely H. (G1). She was also fourth in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), a respectable four lengths behind Lure, and ahead of the likes of Paradise Creek, Flawlessly, and Wolfhound, the latter of which was a half-brother to Weekend Surprise, the dam of A.P. Indy and Summer Squall. Flawlessly would next best Toussaud in the Matriarch (G1) and take Eclipse champion turf mare honors for the second year in a row.
Toussaud’s affinity for the grass was no mystery, as she was a daughter of El Gran Senor (himself a son of Kentucky Derby/Preakness winner and “king maker” sire Northern Dancer).
The Horatio Luro nickname namesake put together an undefeated 2-year-old season to be named 1983’s champion juvenile in England and Ireland, and went on to earn honors again as a 3-year-old in England, in addition to being named champion miler. The only loss he ever suffered over his eight-race career was in the Epsom Derby (G1), losing the 1 1/2-mile contest by a head to another son of Northern Dancer, Secreto, who reportedly shared the same paddock with El Gran Senor as yearlings at Windfields Farm. As a sire, El Gran Senor had fertility issues, but thankfully, Toussaud is one of the targets that made its mark.
Beyond being a Grade 1 winner, Toussaud became a blue hen mare. In addition to Empire Maker, she produced Grade 1 winners Chester House and Honest Lady (who went on to sire and produce Grade 1 winners/sires Divine Park and First Defence, respectively), and another Grade 1 winner in Chiselling.
Toussaud is also the dam of Grade 2 winner and Grade 1-placed Decarchy. Another fun fact regarding Toussaud was that her dam, Grade 2 winner Image of Reality, was a daughter of another winner of the Florida Derby owned by Mrs. Francis Genter and found in the pedigree of beloved Unbridled– In Reality, who went on to stand stud at Tartan Farm before heading to Gainesway, as well.
Gotta love the symmetry.
As for Empire Maker, he produced Grade 1-winning millionaires Acoma and Mushka (both Spinster winners) in his first crop. Pioneerof the Nile was foaled in crop two. He picked up Grade 1 scores on synthetic in the CashCall Futurity and Santa Anita Derby, before, like dad, finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.
Despite this, in 2010, Empire Maker’s fee was lowered to $50,000. On Oct. 30 that year, his daughter, Royal Delta, won her debut, but her legend would not manifest in time to rethink a deal made to stand Empire Maker in Japan, which was announced on Nov. 17. They say hindsight is 20/20, which is all the more profound to type as I look at the date of the calendar.
In all, as I write this, Empire Maker’s progeny have earned more than $109 million. He is represented by 12 Grade 1 winners, seven of them surpassing $1 million in earnings, including those outlined above, as well as Grace Hall, Emollient, and the aforementioned late, great Royal Delta. She developed into a three-time Eclipse Award winner who earned nearly $5 million over the course of her career, which saw her win back-to- back editions of the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) (2011-12). Empire Maker’s Bodemeister, another Grade 1-winning millionaire, was also a Kentucky Derby runner-up, but his first crop produced 2017’s victor, Always Dreaming, and Pioneerof the Nile’s loss was avenged, and then-some, in 2015 by Triple Crown – and…
Breeders’ Cup Classic – champion, American Pharoah.
It was definitely no surprise that, with history-making success in the genetic equation, U.S. interests sought to repatriate Empire Maker.
In 2015, the Solari family’s Don Alberto Corp. in partnership with Gainesway brought the son of former resident Unbridled home to stand the 2016 season to a limited book of mares. In that first crop, he produced yet another Grade 1 winner in Eight Rings, who won by 6 1/4 lengths on debut and, after a mishap in the Del Mar Futurity (G1), went on to score the American Pharoah (G1) — which is kind of funny when you consider, if horse relations were defined along human standards (which of course, they aren’t due to stallions being prolific compared to mares), Eight Rings would be Pharoah’s uncle.
It is sad to consider that Empire Maker was a youthful 20 years old, still packing a potent punch when he succumbed to illness. He was being managed beautifully by Gainesway, whose team was selective with the books and looking forward to quite a few more seasons, as were breeders. As Antony Beck, Chief Executive Officer at Gainesway accurately put it, “He was the epitome of class and quality. I have never been involved with a stallion that possessed a better disposition. His impact on the breed has been significant, particularly producing very sound stock.”
When his son, Pioneerof the Nile passed unexpectedly at 13 years old, there was solace to be found in having the wellspring returned to replenish the genetic thirst. Now, as we were left to ponder what could have been in relation to a seemingly unfinished statement on track, it’s difficult not to feel the question of what if begging for answer over missed years in the shed stateside.
Ultimately, however, you have to accept what is.
What is certain is that the bitter cold of this news will melt with time, as will the snow of winter, giving way to spring and a new crop of foals, including those sired by Empire Maker himself.
American Pharoah currently stands at Coolmore’s Ashford Stud, alongside another Eclipse champion juvenile son of Pioneerof the Nile, Classic Empire. Off to a tremendous start as a stallion, Pharoah secured the title of champion freshman sire of 2019 with his first crop including the undefeated Four Wheel Drive, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2).
We look forward to seeing Classic Empire’s foals debut next year and Eight Rings will eventually retire to Coolmore, too. Also at stud is another son of Pioneerof the Nile, Cairo Prince, and a son of Empire Maker himself, Sky Kingdom, who produced a Grade 1-placed runner in his first crop, Wrecking Crew. Royal Delta’s lone foal, Delta’s Royalty by Galileo, recently debuted a winner in Europe.
That’s part of the beauty of Empire Maker, whose dynasty is sustained not only through sons, but daughters, too. As a broodmare sire, he is represented by multiple Grade 1 winners, among them Separationofpowers, Outwork, and Arklow. The latter of which, as of this writing, is expected to run in the Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) for trainer Brad Cox.
There’s another horse in the Cox barn who is also out of daughter of Empire Maker, an athlete great in temperament, talent, and size who he thinks, based upon two wins in two starts won by daylight, could possibly be good enough to take on the boys in the Kentucky Derby – Taraz.
We also have the progeny of another daughter of Empire Maker to look forward to, that of four-time Grade 1 winner Emollient, who was bred to the superstar proven special enough to be the namesake of Robert J. Frankel himself. With that regal match in mind, I leave you this quote from the late Hall of Famer:
“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.”