For Bobby Frankel, he was to be the Messiah; the gifted regally bred racing machine that would be racing’s next superstar. He even had the appropriate name – Empire Maker.
In the early 2000s, Frankel owned New York racing, winning some 25 grade I stakes at Belmont, Saratoga, and Aqueduct alone. In 2000, Frankel had a classy colt for Juddmonte Farms named Aptitude, who he firmly believed was going to give him his first Kentucky Derby victory. While Aptitude ran a huge race at Churchill Downs, he was no match for the ultra-talented Fusaichi Pegasus and had to settle for second.
Later that year, Frankel sat in his office one morning and spoke in glowing terms of a weanling he had recently seen at Juddmonte Farms, by Unbridled, out of Frankel’s great turf mare Tossaud. Frankel was never been one to refrain from making audacious comments, but even for him it was pretty brazen to proclaim, “I’m going to win the Triple Crown with that colt.” One thing about Frankel, if he believed it he said it, no matter how outrageous it might have sounded to others.
Two years later, Frankel took over the training of the colt, now named Empire Maker. Because of his early hype and Frankel constantly telling people how special the colt was, Empire Maker was sent off as the 2-5 favorite in his career debut going a flat mile at Belmont. He laid back in seventh early, made a sweeping four-wide move, and easily drew off to a 3 1/2-length victory, while under a hand ride.
Frankel was so high on the colt, he put him right into the 1 1/8-mile Remsen Stakes in only his second career start. Sent off as the 7-5 favorite, he had a disastrous start, bobbling coming out of the gate and having to check in traffic. He ran well enough, but could do no better than third, beaten 5 1/2 lengths by Toccet.
In his first start at 3, the 1 1/8-mile Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, he again disappointed, finishing second, beaten one length, as the 2-5 favorite and just never seemed fully focused. Frankel felt he needed to get away from Santa Anita and sent him to Gulfstream for the Florida Derby and put blinkers on the colt.
The change was dramatic and explosive, as Empire Maker, the 2-1 second choice, laid just off the pace and blew the doors off his opponents, winning by 9 3/4 lengths, earning a whopping 108 Beyer speed figure. Just like that, Frankel had the overwhelming favorite for the Kentucky Derby, and his bold prediction two years earlier now seemed quite prophetic.
Frankel always had supreme confidence in his ability to get a horse ready for a big effort off a layoff and he seriously considered waiting the seven weeks and going straight into the Kentucky Derby. But with the Wood Memorial beckoning and seemingly not providing much competition, he had a change of heart and sent Empire Maker up to Aqueduct for his final Derby prep. It was a decision he admittedly would regret the rest of his life.
Following a heavy rain, the sun came out and the track was drying out, but still listed as muddy. The last thing Frankel wanted was a hard race. He merely wanted to slip into town, collect the check, and high-tail it to Kentucky for the Derby three weeks later. Empire Maker won the Wood, and although the margin was only a half-length, he was never in any danger and appeared to be toying with the stubborn Funny Cide, an improving New York-bred gelding. The one thing that troubled Frankel was the huge 111 Beyer speed figure. Empire Maker’s Beyers had improved in every one of his starts – from an 84 to 92 to 98 to 108 to 111. Could he continue to improve or at least maintain those last two lofty figures coming back in three weeks?
Little did Frankel know when Empire Maker arrived at Churchill Downs that the muddy track at Aqueduct had indeed taken its toll and that there was a bruise festering in the colt’s foot. When Frankel worked Empire Maker over a track many felt was too hard, it aggravated the bruise and put the colt’s Derby status in jeopardy.
Frankel kept insisting it was no big deal and it would not affect Empire Maker in the race. But deep down there was some concern. You never want to have a setback this close to the Derby. They worked on the foot every day, tubbing it, but it prevented the colt from training. Again, Frankel continued to downplay it, feeling Empire Maker was so superior to anyone else in the Derby field, including another of his horses Peace Rules, winner of the Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass Stakes, he could overcome not training up to the Derby.
Two days before the Derby, Empire Maker was able to have a light jog, and Frankel sent him out on Friday for his one and only gallop of Derby week. Shortly after Empire Maker broke off into his gallop he bolted to the outside fence rounding the clubhouse turn and just stood there, forcing Frankel and exercise rider Jose Cuevas to abort the gallop. It was something his temperamental dam, Toussaud, would have done.
Frankel, standing nearby, laughed it off, attributing it to the quirkiness he inherited from his dam.
“This is getting to be like a soap opera,” Frankel said. “There ain’t nothing wrong with that horse.”
The truth is, Empire Maker would have to go into the Kentucky Derby with not so much as a gallop the entire week leading up to the race.
At the post position draw selection, Frankel had the choice to break from the inside or from post 12. Jockey Jerry Bailey told him he preferred to be more on the outside, so 12 was chosen. As it turned out, there were second thoughts about that as well, as Bailey, actually breaking from post 11, got hung six-wide going into the first turn and remained five-wide down the backstretch and around the far turn.
Despite the wide trip, Empire Maker moved in for the kill nearing the top of the stretch, closing to 1 1/2 lengths of the lead, but was unable to catch his Wood Memorial victim Funny Cide, losing by 1 3/4 lengths, while just beating out Peace Rules by a head for second.
For a horse who did no training at all the entire week before the Derby and then had to overcome such a wide trip, Empire Maker ran a huge race to finish second. One couldn’t help but ask, what if Empire Maker had not suffered the foot bruise and was able to train normally for the race?
That thought gnawed away at Frankel for the next five weeks, as he skipped the Preakness to point for the Belmont and found himself in the role of spoiler, with Funny Cide, not Empire Maker, trying for a Triple Crown sweep. Frankel knew that Empire Maker was the better horse, as he demonstrated in the Wood Memorial. And now here he was trying at least to salvage one leg of the Triple Crown and deprive another horse of sweeping the Crown.
Frankel relished being the bad guy and couldn’t wait to get his revenge on one of the most popular horses to race in New York in years. You knew it would have killed him to have to watch Funny Cide sweep the Triple Crown, a feat he firmly believed should have been accomplished by Empire Maker, who was now trying to become an empire breaker.
Unlike the transient monarchs of recent years, Funny Cide conceivably could have ruled over a good portion of the decade, and Frankel, with his arsenal of potential champions, wanted desperately to stop his ascent to the throne now. Frankel was convinced Empire Maker would reclaim his rightful place atop the 3-year-old division.
Although it was blasphemous, especially in New York, to express one’s opposition to Funny Cide and his quest for the Triple Crown, Frankel defended his forgotten hero with a fervor that was perceived by Funny Cide worshippers as cocky and arrogant. That didn’t faze Frankel in the slightest. He knew in his heart who should have been trying for the Triple Crown and there was no doubt in his mind it was the foot bruise and so many missed training days that prevented that scenario from unfolding.
Frankel knew he had to get four works into Empire Maker between the Derby and Belmont in order to send a fit horse into battle. The first two works went perfectly. But then the weather intervened and played havoc with the training schedule of the Belmont-based horses. Following four days of rain, Frankel’s concern turned to desperation. On May 24, with the forecast still ominous, he began putting his complex network of brain cells to work in order to come up with a solution.
In a most unusual move, he decided to enter Empire Maker in the Jersey Derby on May 24, which had already been taken off the grass. Later that afternoon, he happened to be in racing secretary Mike Lakow’s office when trainer Christophe Clement walked in and asked permission to work his Belmont starter Dynever on the grass on that Sunday (May 25). Although the turf course was yielding, it was far better than working on a treacherous dirt track. Frankel’s light went on and he decided to follow suit. So, just like that, it was goodbye Jersey Derby, hello Belmont inner turf course. Empire Maker worked a solid five furlongs over the yielding course and all was again right with the world.
Three works down and one to go. The day before Empire Maker’s scheduled work on May 31, Bailey showed up at Frankel's barn and echoed the trainer's words that he truly believed he had the better horse.
“Hey, if he beats us, what are you gonna do?” Frankel said to Bailey. “All this pre-race bull don't mean a thing. We'll see who’s the better horse.”
When Bailey came by the following morning, jockey Aaron Gryder, who handled Empire Maker two works back, was already there. Frankel told Bailey he'd be working Riva Ridge Breeders' Cup Stakes contender Midas Eyes and Gryder would be on Empire Maker.
"Whatever you want to do, buddy," Bailey said to Frankel. “Listen, my best interest is getting him there the right way. However it comes about, the end result is the most important thing. I'll check my ego right at that door.”
Frankel, who never timed his horses’ works, watched from the clubhouse apron as Empire Maker worked six furlongs in a strong 1:13 over a deep track.
“Look at the stride on that horse,” Frankel said. “I can tell how he's moving he worked good. I'm tickled. That was just what he needed. He looked great and he finished strong. This week is going really differently than the week before the Derby.”
When Frankel met Gryder coming back to the barn, he asked him bluntly, "Will he win? That's the only thing I want to hear.”
"Yeah, he'll win," Gryder said. "I've been trying to help you win a classic for years.”
“Well, we screw it up all the time,” Frankel joked. As Empire Maker passed by, Frankel let out a deep breath. “Whew, he's exciting; I'm excited,” he said. “Now, we'll just see what he's made of.”
If Frankel was happy after Empire Maker’s final work, he was downright giddy after Funny Cide worked five furlongs in a scorching :57 4/5 after a half in :45 4/5 on the Tuesday before the Belmont.
“Forget him, he's done," Frankel said after the work. “He needed that like he needed a hole in the head. If he was my horse, I'd walk him for two days and pray.”
The bullseye on Funny Cide’s back had gotten bigger and Frankel felt he had dead aim on him.
On June 5, two days before the Belmont, Empire Maker turned in an awesome gallop over a muddy track. Frankel's face lit up.
“Look at him; he's not even breaking a sweat,” Frankel said. Then as if having a revelation, added, "He's gonna win. Let's get it on; I'm ready.”
The big day finally arrived, with the predicted rain beginning earlier than expected. “I’m not nervous at all,” Frankel said Belmont morning. “I did the best I could do. He's the one who's got to do it now. I just feel bad for the crowd.He was hoping he would feel even worse for the crowd following the race. Despite the steady rain, a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 101,864 showed up hoping to finally witness history. There had been a 25-year gap between Triple Crown winners when Secretariat won in 1973, and now it was 25 years since Affirmed's Triple Crown sweep in 1978. The planets seemed to be aligning in favor of Funny Cide.
Not for Frankel. It was time for Empire Maker to get his due. As the horses made their way through the tunnel, a deafening cheer went up for Funny Cide, while the boos rained down on Empire Maker.
The start was clean, with Empire Maker outbreaking the field from post 1. Santos quickly put Funny Cide on the lead, with Scrimshaw on his inside. Bailey could have slipped through along the rail, but his ideal trip was to stalk Funny Cide from the outside. He saw a seam forming behind the two leaders and pulled Empire Maker off the rail, slipped in front of Dynever, and just like that, found himself right where he wanted to be, on the outside of Funny Cide, sitting just off his flank.
It was apparent as they headed down the backstretch that Funny Cide was fighting Santos' restraint and was continuously changing leads. Bailey and Empire Maker had moved up into second and were in perfect sync, with Bailey's back motionless and horizontal, while Santos was up at a 45-degree angle, his head bobbing up and down. The early fractions of :23.85 and :48.70 were solid enough on the sloppy track. Santos, pulling back hard on Funny Cide, slowed the pace down to 1:13.51 for the three-quarters. But the Empire was ready to strike. Bailey had not even moved his hands yet, and Santos was already starting to pump his arms aboard Funny Cide.
Midway around the turn, Bailey handed the ball over to Empire Maker and let him take it from there. He cruised up alongside Funny Cide, and it was obvious already that there would be no Triple Crown winner. Right behind the top two, Ten Most Wanted, under Pat Day, was closing in, reaching out beautifully with his enormous strides. Bailey threw a cross on Empire Maker after turning for home and set sail for the wire. Ten Most Wanted had lost a bit of momentum cutting the corner, but had already collared Funny Cide, who was under the whip and going nowhere.
As he passed the quarter pole, Bailey was engulfed by the roar of the crowd. “It was deafening,” he said. “I always gave Churchill Downs the highest noise meter rating, but this topped it. It was unbelievable. It really threw him back and got him out of his rhythm.”
Ten Most Wanted made another run at Empire Maker inside the eighth pole. Bailey went to a single right-handed whip, and Empire Maker jumped over to his left lead. He looked to be in trouble, as Ten Most Wanted was now rolling and right up to his throatlatch. Bailey switched to a left-handed whip, and Empire Maker changed smoothly back to his right lead. He gave another spurt, then dug in gamely and held a safe margin to the wire, winning by three-quarters of a length in a solid 2:28.26.
“I knew I had the best horse,” a beaming and proud Frankel said as he quickly made his way from the racing secretary's office, where he had watched the race. “I wanted this more for the horse.”
Bailey was ecstatic, as he gave a couple of short pumps of his fist after passing the wire. But he feared what was to come. As he returned, he told the outrider, “It’s going to be a shame if they boo this horse.”
His fears were realized. The crowd, which had just given Funny Cide a thunderous ovation upon his return, spotted the villains, and out of the murk of Belmont Park came a chorus of boos.
“I thought that was pretty crummy,” Bailey said the next morning at the barn, as he fed carrots to Empire Maker. “I kind of half expected it. I’ve been booed a lot here. I can take it for myself, but I hated to see this horse get booed after the courageous race he ran.”
For Frankel, his typical Cheshire cat-grin lasted for days as he basked in the glory of Empire Maker’s victory, happy to play the role of villain.
Empire Maker would race only one more time, finishing second by a neck in the Jim Dandy Stakes before being scratched form the Travers and retired to Juddmonte Farms for a whopping stud fee of $100,000.
"Empire Maker is the best horse I have ever trained," Frankel said at the time. “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 Fitzsimmon's name is with Bold Ruler.”
That was not to be. After siring 18 stakes winners from four crops of racing age, Empire Maker was sold to the Japan Bloodstock Breeders Association in November of 2010. One of those 18 stakes winners was Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, who, of course, would go on to sire Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Empire Maker did not fulfill Frankel’s dream of winning the Triple Crown, but he sure stamped his name in Triple Crown history.
Following his departure, two of Empire Maker’s offspring, Bodemeister and three-time Eclipse Award winner Royal Delta, went on to accomplish great things.
And now, nearly four months after his grandson swept the Triple Crown, Empire Maker is heading back to America to stand at Gainesway Farm. Frankel no longer is with us, but this would have made him smile. That special weanling that had gotten him so excited 15 years ago is coming home.