Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Louisiana Derby Winners
By the time Empire Maker made his debut in October of 2002, the Unbridled son out of blue hen mare Toussaud had a lot to live up to as the half-brother to four graded stakes winners. But he passed that test with flying colors.
A winner of his debut, Empire Maker wasn’t able to add a stakes victory to his record in his next two starts, finishing third in the Grade 2 Remsen and second in the Sham, respectively.
But it was the Grade 1 Florida Derby where his true talent was shown.
Empire Maker was never farther than 2 ½ lengths off the leader and by the third call was in second, just a length behind race favorite Trust N Luck. In the final eighth of the 1 1/8 mile race, Empire Maker took control then pulled away to win by 9 ¾ lengths.
That win was followed up by a narrow victory over Funny Cide in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial, sending him to the Kentucky Derby as the favorite. But a few days before the Kentucky Derby it was revealed that Empire Maker bruised a hoof in his previous win, which had been lingering since that race.
Empire Maker still ran in the Derby and nearly took his record to three straight Grade 1 wins, but the result from the Wood Memorial were reversed with Funny Cide beating him by 1 ¾ lengths.
Funny Cide headed to the Preakness and won while Empire Maker waited for the Belmont, setting up another clash between the two.
While Empire Maker had been at a disadvantage in the Derby, Funny Cide was at the disadvantage this time around. The gelding had been too keen in a workout just a few days before the Belmont Stakes and was just as eager in the Belmont Stakes.
Funny Cide went straight to the lead with Scrimshaw and Empire Maker tracking him. Empire Maker challenged Funny Cide in the far turn with Funny Cide fighting on before grudgingly giving up the lead in the middle of the turn. Funny Cide attempted to fight back but Empire Maker started to pull away, with Ten Most Wanted then making a go at him. It looked like Ten Most Wanted may catch up to Empire Maker with less than a furlong to go but Empire Maker found just enough to hold him off and win by three-quarters of a length.
2003 BELMONT STAKES
"What happened in the Kentucky Derby? I played it real close," trainer Bobby Frankel told ESPN after the Belmont. "I was thinking ahead. I didn't train him hard and then he missed some training time with the bruised foot. With the way he was trained for the race, I gave him too much to overcome. If I could do what they call a do-over and could do it all over again, he would have won the Kentucky Derby. I really wanted to win [the Belmont], but more so for the horse. The press tends to get down on a horse like this and I wanted to get him back on top and have everybody raving about him again."
From Belmont, Empire Maker headed up to Saratoga to run in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy. Finishing second by a neck to Grade 2 winner Strong Hope, Empire Maker was headed to the Travers Stakes but a virus knocked him out of that start. Another bruise kept Empire Maker from starting in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in mid-September and by the end of the month he was retired to owner-breeder Juddmonte Farms where he started at a stud fee of $100,000.
Empire Maker had success as a sire from his first crop when Mushka arrived on the scene as a 2-year-old in 2007, winning the Grade 2 Demoiselle at Aqueduct. But Mushka’s big year came two years later when the filly won three of her nine starts including the Grade 1 Spinster Stakes at Keeneland, a win that started Empire Maker’s streak of four different daughters winning four Spinster Stakes in five years. Mushka also gave Empire Maker his first taste of Breeders’ Cup success when finishing second to Life is Sweet in the 2009 edition of the race, a result that would be bettered with another Empire Maker daughter a few years later.
Overall, from Empire Maker’s 75 runners in that first crop, 10 won stakes races with five others hitting the board in stakes races.
Empire Maker’s most successful filly, Royal Delta, was born in 2008 and made her debut just days before it was announced Empire Maker had been sold to the Japan Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association. Royal Delta got better as she aged, winning the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic for champion 3-year-old filly honors but it wasn’t until her 4- and 5-year-old years that she was at her best. In 2012 and 2013, the filly won seven of her 14 starts and hit the board four other times. She was named champion older mare both years and won a second edition of the Ladies’ Classic in 2012.
While Royal Delta was controlling the older female ranks in 2012, Empire Maker also had one of the best 3-year-old colts in the nation in Bodemeister. Bodemeister didn’t make his debut until January of his 3-year-old year but by March, he was running in stakes company. He finished second in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes before winning the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby a month later. Unfortunately for Bodemeister, he ran into I’ll Have Another in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, finishing second in both races. Bodemeister was retired to stud duty after those efforts and so far has one winner from two starters as of May 18.
Empire Maker spent five breeding seasons in Japan with his first crop born in 2012. From that crop, so far 94 of his 150 runners have won 224 races between them with his best being six-time winner Susan Joy. In 2015, five of Empire Maker’s then-yearlings were sent from Japan to the United States and the stallion soon followed.
It was announced on Oct. 1, 2015 by Gainesway that the farm had partnered with Don Alberto Corporation to buy Empire Maker and return him to the U.S. to stand at Gainesway. It was announced shortly after that that Empire Maker would again be standing for the $100,000 stud fee he’d started his stallion career at 11 years earlier.
“We were initially approached by Don Alberto Corporation, who we sold [horses] for last year at the yearling sales,” said Michael Hernon, Gainesway’s director of sales. “They obviously know Gainesway and its reputation and the farm and so on and so forth and they called two meetings with us and then it started to proceed and Antony Beck was in Europe at the time and he met [Don Alberto’s] Carlos Heller over there in Ireland at the K Club in County Kildare and that was a good meeting. Things progressed farther and eventually when it was signed, sealed and delivered the horse had a tag on his halter that said ‘Please bring him to Gainesway.’”
Empire Maker will breed around 130 mares this year with about 45 coming from the broodmare bands of Don Alberto and Gainesway. The stallion, whose pasture is next to fellow Belmont Stakes winner Birdstone, is well-behaved on the ground with that temperament carrying over to the breeding shed.
“I have never had a stallion come in here who is as well-mannered as he is,” said Carl Buckler, Gainesway’s stallion manager. “He’s quiet, you can touch his shoulder, you can pet him on the nose, he doesn’t bite at you. He’s unreal. [He’s still well-mannered] in the breeding shed, he’ll stand behind the mare and when he gets good and ready he’ll let you know.”
While Empire Maker doesn’t have many foals still racing in the United States at this point due to his time in the Japan, an advantage Empire Maker has is that his runners continued to race at the top level in the United States after he left. In addition to American Pharoah keeping his name in the headlines last year, his daughter Frivolous won a Grade 2 race and finished second in a Grade 1 while Sky Kingdom won a Grade 3 in California. This year, two of his runners have won stakes races. His half-sister has also helped keep in in the spotlight with her son First Defence siring the 2014 U.S. champion older female Close Hatches.
“[Empire Maker is] priced at $100,000 live foal which compares very well to what he’s done. He’s the sire of 10 Grade 1 winners including, of course, horses like Pioneerof the Nile and Bodemeister, and he’s the grandfather of the Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. So he’s certainly in vogue and rightly so,” said Hernon. “It’s great having him back in the U.S.A and specifically back here at Gainesway to carry the flag underneath our leading sire in the nation, Tapit. We were excited to seal the deal. We think he’s got a bright future. He’s 16; in my opinion he looks well less than 16 and he’s handling himself well. It’s all good. There’s strong demand, people realize he’s good value at the price and he’s a super individual. I think he’ll be super commercial, he’s obviously got the bloodlines and he’s proven.”
While everyone connected to Empire Maker was high on the horse from the start, it’s unlikely any of them envisioned the level of success he has had. Empire Maker’s name was approved by The Jockey Club in November 2001, and there’s now no doubt that it was the perfect moniker for a horse who has already left a mark on U.S. racing.