When as a horse as influential as Empire Maker passes suddenly, as he did at the age of 20 on January 18, it is natural to reflect on all he achieved and to wonder what may have been. It is natural to feel shock and grief, to feel perhaps he was gone too soon even at 20, particularly since it had not been long since he was returned to the U.S. for sire duties.
Yet I think our time is preordained and nothing will intervene to alter that when we are meant to go. This does not mean I don’t feel the loss.
When I first moved to Kentucky, it was to follow a dream horses just like that can ignite in people. And he was so royally bred, I thought if any horse deserved to win one of the three-year-old classics in the history of those races, it was him. So I was elated when he prevailed on a rainy day at Belmont Park, the denial of the popular blue-collar horse Funny Cide’s Triple Crown notwithstanding. I had nothing against Funny Cide but that certainty Empire Maker belonged among the elite winners of a Triple Crown race was that strong. I had only lived in Kentucky for a few months by the time he won the Belmont in 2003, but when he retired to Juddmonte, I made sure to go see him. It was visiting the horse farms the year before I moved there and getting to see all these horses in the flesh that I had only watched on TV that sold me on moving, as well as the desire to be professionally involved.
I also had another reason for being an ardent follower of Empire Maker. It was about pedigree, too, as was my thought that he deserved to win at least one Triple Crown race. His sire Unbridled was the first Derby winner I remember, watching on TV in Tennessee, which was the closest I could get to horse racing in that state.
Then I began tracking Empire Maker’s progeny. I went to Keeneland specifically to see one of his first runners myself. I didn’t want to waste any opportunities to visit these horses or see their progeny race now that I lived in a state where that was possible. And he had so many good runners, they sprung to the top of the list of favorite horses in years they raced. Mushka. Acoma. In Lingerie. Pioneerof the Nile. I was so devoted a follower of his progeny, and Mushka had particularly captivated me, that I remember standing at the rail of the paddock at Keeneland one day ankle deep in pooled rain water to see her before she made her way to the track. Like I said, I didn’t want to miss an opportunity now that I lived where it was easier than ever to see these horses.
I was a little shocked Empire Maker was sold to Japan, especially since he had been such a product of Juddmonte breeding, and did feel it was premature. When Royal Delta burst through to such prominence, that notion was reinforced. However, I read a Thoroughbred Daily News article since his passing that indicates he was likely not a good match for Juddmonte’s primarily turf-oriented mares. The decision is not my concern and I will never castigate an owner for sending his horse overseas because no matter how much I admire and feel a connection to a particular horse, I don’t lose sight as I have seen can be the case that a connection does not equal a say in how he is managed. It seems to go without saying that is not realistic, but there are many who seem to have difficulty grasping that.
Because I love the Unbridled line as I do, Pioneerof the Nile was my Derby pick in his year and I was elated to see him take the lead, though it was only that briefly, for the short amount of time it took to run by my section of the grandstand.
Naturally, it was incredible not only to finally see a Triple Crown winner in my lifetime in 2015, but that he descended from Empire Maker, living up even more to the billing in his stud advertisements when he was at Juddmonte, which his own progeny had also proved: Destined.
If ever a horse was destined, it was he. To be a great runner. A great sire. A top-notch grandsire.
And it is exciting to see the success he has had with his first U.S. crop since returning from Japan, and to see how not only Pioneerof the Nile achieved excellent results as a sire, but also that his grandson American Pharoah has been off to a rousing start.
I will follow these new U.S. crops of his just as avidly as I did the first, and I am on board all the way with Eight Rings, having placed my first Derby future wager on him and on one of Pharoah’s sons, just as I made sure to place a bet on Empire Maker when he was entered in the Derby, though it was a long wait in a drivethrough betting line at Keeneland. It mattered. Not for potential money won, but almost to register my strong belief in him in an official sense.
Yes, it sad that he is gone. But what a gift it was he came back and that he had time to produce additional crops in this country and that the first one is already proving he has not lost a step as an influential sire. I do believe it was his time and thinking of him with gratitude for all he gave to the sport and the breed is to honor him best.
I think of this too because I just lost my feline companion of thirteen years the day after Empire Maker’s passing. He let me know it was his time and as hard as it is to adjust to life without him, echoing what everyone at Gainesway has said about Empire Maker, the gift was his presence and he had the time he was meant to have. And what a blessing it is to know these animals who touch our lives so profoundly that in equal measure we feel gratitude for who they were and sorrow that they could not stay with us longer.
I will never forget how amazing it was to see Empire Maker again at Gainesway, all those years later. It was like the first time and left a strong indelible impression. He exuded class and that impression has stayed with me. I last saw him a few months ago in November, and I especially treasure the day that I saw him, Pioneerof the Nile, and American Pharoah all in the same month during open houses and got a photo with them all. Now that two of those three are gone, that means even more. I am certain, as Chris McGrath eulogized in the aforementioned TDN article that Empire Maker has assured his legacy and name will live on in pedigrees and memories and even though I was in his presence only a few times those impressions will stay with me too. Even in a region full of top-notch stallions, his class and demeanor seemed to put him in a rare realm.
McGrath, Chris. “An Empire That Will Survive Its Maker’s Loss.” Thoroughbred Daily News, January 20, 2020.