Foal sales will be scene of the next chapter in Empire Maker thriller
Michele MacDonald updates the story of the repatriated stallion
The story of one of the world’s most influential sires has all the elements of an international thriller: bred by a prince, banished to a foreign land and subsequently the subject of a war of dollars for a unique repatriation.
An exciting new chapter will begin soon in the improbable saga of Empire Maker, whose stud career has realised the hopes behind the name bestowed on him by breeder Khalid Abdullah’s Juddmonte division in America.
Members of Empire Maker’s initial crop of foals since he became the only active stallion resold to America from Japan will be offered during the November bloodstock sales in Lexington.
“Truly, the sky's the limit,” Gainesway president Antony Beck said when considering the current potential for the 17-year-old stallion, who arrived at Gainesway two years ago under a partnership venture with Chilean-based Don Alberto Corp.
Gainesway and Don Alberto together have bred around 50 of the 97 live foals in Empire Maker’s initial return crop and they followed up by breeding an additional 50 mares to him this year, Beck said, giving the story another intriguing angle.
By limiting the stallion’s book to about 135 mares each year, the two farms have possessed nearly 40 per cent of his stud availability and half of the current weanling crop.
In 2015, Beck described the acquisition of Empire Maker after months of negotiations with the Japan Bloodhorse Breeders’ Association as the pinnacle of his tenure at Gainesway, and he is even more convinced after assessing the weanlings.
“I think it’s turned out better than I ever would have dreamt,” he said. “We’ve used him extensively at Gainesway and we have a large number of really attractive foals.”
Representatives of Don Alberto, which took a further plunge into American bloodstock with Empire Maker after buying the former Vinery farm in Lexington and assembling an elite broodmare band, share Beck’s conviction.
“We’re quite excited about the foals we have - they’re beautiful,” said Fernando Diaz Valdes, Don Alberto bloodstock adviser. “They have size and scope, muscle and presence.”
Records accessible through The Jockey Club show that some of the world’s most prominent breeders also have used Empire Maker.
Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, George Strawbridge’s Augustin Stable, Marie Jones, Charlotte Weber’s Live Oak Stud, Calumet Farm, Prince Faisal’s Nawara Stud, Mandy Pope’s Whisper Hill Farm and WinStar Farm are among the breeders of this year’s crop.
Two Empire Maker weanlings have been cataloged for the Fasig-Tipton November sale on Monday, both fillies. Hip 27 is out of Canadian champion Roxy Gap, while Hip 38 is out of Sunlight Cat, a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Moreno.
Six Empire Maker weanlings have been cataloged for the Keeneland November sale, which starts on Tuesday. Four are consigned by Gainesway, led by Hip 314, a half sister to multiple Grade 1 winner Belle Gallantey from the female family of the world’s highest rated horse, Arrogate.
“They’re very good individuals. They’re forward, they’re precocious, they have a lot of quality. They’re like him - he dominates his mares,” said Gainesway’s Michael Hernon of the weanlings. “They will remind people that’s the kind of horse you get [by Empire Maker].”
While Empire Maker spent five years in Japan, beginning with the 2011 season, American and other buyers did not have easy access to his offspring.
But he became a formidable force in absentia as his grandson American Pharoah, by Empire Maker’s multiple Grade 1 winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, captured the 2014 American champion juvenile title. The following year, American Pharoah became the first horse to sweep the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
And the dynasty keeps expanding.
Another grandson of Empire Maker, Classic Empire, ruled as American champion juvenile in 2016. This year, Always Dreaming, by Empire Maker’s Grade 1 winning son Bodemeister, prevailed in the Kentucky Derby.
Empire Maker earned his name due to his potential as a son of Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled and the El Gran Senor mare Toussaud, a Group 3 winner in England and Grade 1 winner in the United States. Toussaud produced four Grade 1 winners and was hailed as Broodmare of the Year after Empire Maker’s victories in the Belmont Stakes, Wood Memorial and Florida Derby.
The late Bobby Frankel proclaimed Empire Maker as the best horse he ever trained.
So American breeders were stunned when Juddmonte sold Empire Maker to the JBBA in 2010. Empire Maker apparently was not providing Juddmonte with the sire success desired from its turf-oriented broodmare band but, overall, he sired the likes of twice champion Royal Delta and ten other Grade 1 winners.
Empire Maker ranked fourth among Japan’s first-season sires of 2014, a list topped by Harbinger, and is 13th on Japan’s 2017 general sire list. While standing for JBBA, he primarily received mares owned by small breeders.
Recognising his burgeoning influence in the US, the JBBA decided in 2015 to offer Empire Maker for sale and quietly approached some potential buyers. Representatives of several American studs - including WinStar, where Pioneerof the Nile and Bodemeister stand, and Coolmore’s Ashford, now home of American Pharoah and Classic Empire - travelled to Japan that summer.
Hernon, who also flew to Japan to inspect the stallion, said Beck and Don Alberto principal Carlos Heller signed a partnership agreement during a private meeting in Ireland, and the JBBA board eventually approved their bid for the horse.
Terms have not been disclosed, but Beck described the complex process as “very competitive.”
“Here was a horse of the highest calibre, a very proven stallion with great appeal to the American market. He was going to be repatriated and we wanted him,” Hernon said.
As the top son of Unbridled - who died young at 14 and whose own sire, the gifted Mr Prospector stallion Fappiano, died at 13 - Empire Maker represented a rare jewel to stand alongside leading American sire Tapit at Gainesway. His sire-line has generated precocity along with classic ability, and brilliant speed complementing stamina.
“It’s been an incredibly strong line. My own personal belief is that Empire Maker represents the best blood of that line,” Beck said.
Today at Gainesway, a toned and dappled Empire Maker strides out of the stallion barn with the swagger of a returning hero. His position there is fitting, as Unbridled began his stud career at Gainesway.
“It’s been all smooth sailing since Empire Maker arrived," Hernon said. "He’s very good in the shed - he generally breeds first time up and has very good fertility. He increased his number of mares in foal this year, returning right at 92 per cent."
The quality of the mares that visited Empire Maker in 2016, when his fee was $100,000, and this year, when it was adjusted to $85,000 in recognition of competition from his descendants, has been superb. Plans call for Empire Maker to stand for $85,000 in 2018.
Mares that have current Empire Maker weanlings include Aldebaran Light, dam of Group/Grade 1 winners Balmont and Eskendereya, who produced a filly; Crown Queen, the Grade 1-winning half-sister to Royal Delta, a colt; American turf champion Forever Together, a colt; and Grade 1 winner Her Smile, a colt.
Also, Liberty Girl, half-sister to Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice and Grade 1 winner Champagne D’Oro, a filly; Lucas Street, dam of Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner Wavell Avenue, a colt; Miz Kella, sister to champion Shanghai Bobby, a filly; Italian Group 1 winner Nayarra, a colt, and Starlight Tiara, half-sister to the dam of European champion Air Force Blue, a colt.
Weanlings bred by Don Alberto include a colt who is a half-brother to Frankel’s stakes-winning daughter Rubilinda and a colt out of Grade 3 winner La Cloche, a $2.4 million broodmare acquisition who is half-sister to Grade 1 winner Winter Memories.
“The hope is, with these first two years of outstanding mares, that Empire Maker has already sired another high-quality horse like his previous top runners,” Hernon said.
“His foals come out with a big frame, they furnish over time and continue to improve. And they have his temperament, which is all class,” he said. “We think they’ll be strongly sought after in the market.”