Empire Maker had it all: pedigree, talent and good looks. He always seemed destined for great things. It was only on a race replay, but I'll never forget the first time I saw this son of Unbridled. He was that kind of horse.
Sent off at odds of 2-5 for his much anticipated career debut, the handsome dark bay relaxed early before uncorking a strong rally in a one-mile maiden race in the fall of 2002. Hand ridden to victory by Hall of Fame rider, Jerry Bailey, he thoroughly outclassed his 12 rivals that afternoon at Belmont Park. From then on, he was a must-watch horse.
It was only natural that I was so interested in Empire Maker. I was a fan of both of his parents. Trained by the late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, Toussaud was a wonderful race mare. Owned and bred by Juddmonte Farm, she was one of the best turf mares of her generation, but Empire Maker's sire was even better.
The winner of the 1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic, Unbridled was a handsome powerhouse that I fell in love with during my college years. A champion on the track, he proved to be every bit as successful as a stallion, and Empire Maker was one of his best.
The secret was out on Empire Maker even before his impressive unveiling, but still the colt was growing into his frame and in need of a little seasoning. Put right into graded stakes racing for his second start, he was sent off at 7-5 in the Remsen Stakes (G2), but a troubled start ultimately led to only a rally for a third-place finish.
Given a little time between races, he next appeared in Southern California, where he was again bet down to 2-5 for the Sham Stakes in February of his 3-year-old season. There he was defeated again, but he looked more ready for stakes racing, splitting horses and rallying up the rail for second.
Still, the horse who had promised so much in his debut, began 0-for-2 in stakes company. That trend changed in a big way in his fourth lifetime start.
Shipped to Gulfstream Park, Empire Maker became a Grade 1 winner in the Florida Derby. In fact, it was one of the most impressive Kentucky Derby prep performances we've seen in the 21st century. The 9 3/4-length tour de force was a thing of beauty. Off that, there was little doubt he was the one to beat for the Kentucky Derby.
One race came in between the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby for Empire Maker, and it was back in New York for the Wood Memorial (G1). Sent off as a prohibitive favorite at 1-2, he ran his race, but so did the race's second choice, Funny Cide.
The half-length victory in the Wood for Empire Maker was not what many had expected, but the truth is his new rival had run a strong and game race. They met again three weeks later in Louisville.
Sent off as a clear 5-2 favorite in the 16-horse field for the Run for the Roses, a colt that Frankel would call “the best horse he ever trained” ran wide for much of the Derby but still came calling in the stretch. He was an imposing presence on the outside, but Funny Cide had something left. The New York-bred gelding repelled the bid of the favorite and became a national hero.
While Funny Cide rolled home an easy winner of the Preakness, Empire Maker rested, looking to avenge his runner-up finish in the Derby. Sure enough, with a Triple Crown in the balance, Empire Maker proved too much for his rival in the Belmont.
Always close, he put away Funny Cide at the top of the stretch and had plenty left for the late rally of Ten Most Wanted. The Belmont Stakes was his third Grade 1 victory in a four-race stretch and proof positive of his abundant class.
The Belmont was Empire Maker's most important win, and also his final one. He raced only once more, when a furious late rally fell just short to the loose on the lead Strong Hope in the Jim Dandy. And that was it.
An illness kept Empire Maker out of the Travers and recurrence of a foot issue that had popped up before the Kentucky Derby was ultimately the end of his career. He had accomplished plenty in eight races, but there seemed to be so much unfinished business for Empire Maker.
Frankel, who died six years later at the age of 68, felt that we never came close to seeing the absolute best of the Juddmonte Farm homebred. I tend to agree. Perhaps that materialized though through Empire Maker's legacy as a stallion.
Among his many fine runners included two Bob Baffert trainees in Pioneerof the Nile and Bodemeister. The former was a multiple Grade 1 winner who finished second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, while the latter was a huge talent who was rather unlucky to finish second in both the Derby and the Preakness during his brief racing career.
Empire Maker's greatest legacy, however, comes from his grandsons. Bodemeister has already sired the 2017 Kentucky Derby winner, Always Dreaming, but of course it was Pioneerof the Nile who really hit it big at stud, siring the 2015 Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year American Pharoah.
Before two of his grandsons won the Kentucky Derby, Empire Maker was sold to the Japan Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association to stand at the Shizunai Stallion Station in November 2010, where he stood for five years. In the fall of 2015, we learned that Empire Maker would be returning to America.
Standing at Gainesway Farm, Empire Maker went back to siring good horses in America, including this year's Kentucky Derby hopeful, Eight Rings.
Sadly, there won't be many more racing crops for the top runner and sire. Empire Maker succumbed to a rare disease earlier this month that affected his immune system. He was 20 years old.
Before he passed, I had the chance to visit him one last time at Gainesway Farm. Far removed from his battles with Funny Cide, he was still one the grandest looking horse I've ever seen. I remember you, Empire Maker.