After five years in Japan, Empire Maker is returning to Kentucky, a move that in the Thoroughbred world has the same air of excitement as LeBron James coming back to Cleveland: We never wanted him to leave, and as we watched "what could have been" unfold before our eyes, we hoped that one day he'd come home.
Empire Maker is taking his talents to Gainesway, which has partnered with Don Alberto Corp. in a 50-50 deal brokered by Narvick International's Emmanuel de Seroux to purchase the stallion amid a series of factors that have made it possible. The first was foreign exchange—today's yen is weak. When Juddmonte Farms sold its homebred son of Unbridled to the Japan Bloodstock Breeders' Association in November 2010, the yen was worth 46% more against the dollar than it is today. Also this year, Empire Maker's first Japanese-sired crop of 3-year-olds are not meeting the expectations suggested by his U.S. stud record. Add to the mix that his grandson American Pharoah won the Triple Crown, and you have all the ingredients for a homecoming.
"I think everyone wanted to bring Empire Maker back to Kentucky," Gainesway president Antony Beck said. "Everyone was very surprised that he left, and he has proved to be such a remarkably good stallion."
But most of that proof came after his export, at which time Empire Maker's record included Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile and four grade I-winning fillies. From the Kentucky-sired crops he left behind, Empire Maker added five more grade I-winning daughters including three-time champion Royal Delta, and the brilliant Bodemeister , second in the Derby and Preakness. Meanwhile, Pioneerof the Nile's start at stud has given added credence to the sire line.
"That's what makes Empire Maker really interesting—that his first major son at stud has gotten off to such an extremely good start as a sire," Beck said. "But I'm not surprised, because Empire Maker has one of the best pedigrees of any Thoroughbred in the whole world."
Empire Maker is out of Juddmonte's blue hen mare Toussaud, winner of the 1993 Gamely Handicap (gr. IT) and subsequently the dam of four grade I winners—all by different sires. She was named Broodmare of the Year in 2002. Toussaud's grade I-winning daughter Honest Lady produced 2008 Forego Handicap (gr. I) winner First Defence, one of the best sons of Unbridled's Song and bred similarly to Empire Maker.
At Gainesway Empire Maker will stand alongside Tapit , North America's leading sire. Tapit will be 15 years old next season and Empire Maker 16; together they make a pretty nice pair to have in a stallion barn. "It's better than pretty nice; it's absolutely amazing," Beck said with a smile. "Hopefully, they'll have many years ahead of them."
Gainesway is well known for supporting its stallions with its own mares, and Beck has already begun the process of selecting which will go to Empire Maker in 2016.
"The plan is for Don Alberto and Gainesway each to send the stallion about 20 mares," he said. "I have 81 mares, and so far I've identified 21 that I think would suit Empire Maker. I want to be even more thorough with my selection and then buy some additional mares (in November) that I think would suit him well."
Beck noted that Empire Maker has a specific affinity for mares carrying blood of Seattle Slew—he is present in the pedigrees of seven of Empire Maker's 11 grade I winners. Seattle Slew can also be found in Tapit's sire line, but breeding daughters of Tapit to Empire Maker would create 2x4 inbreeding to Unbridled. Beck has considered the possibility and is OK with it.
"I don't think it would put me off," he said. "Any number that adds up to six, like 3x3 or 2x4, is not a bad thing. I bred a Tapit mare to War Front , whose broodmare sire has the same Fappiano/Ruby Slippers cross as Tapit's dam. And one of the best runners that I've bred by Tapit, Ring Weekend, won a grade I this year in California and is out of a Fappiano-line mare, so I like to inbreed to that."
Beck said Gainesway will cap Empire Maker at 135 mares, the same limit placed on Tapit's book. With the ownership group accounting for roughly 40 of those, it leaves just 95 available seasons to Empire Maker next year. "He's going to fill up fast," Beck said.
Still, breeders who are fans of the sire line will have their options. Son, sire, and grandsire—American Pharoah at Ashford Stud, Pioneerof the Nile at WinStar Farm, and Empire Maker at Gainesway—all will stand in Central Kentucky next year and potentially will appeal to the same upper-level mares. How will breeders decide?
Beck paused, contemplative. "I have no idea. I think they're three very desirable stallions and stallion prospects. I was at Belmont, and American Pharoah won like a champion. He's a sensational racehorse. And Pioneerof the Nile, to sire the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, that speaks for itself.
"It's a competitive business, but we're always trying to find great stallions to stand at Gainesway. Our philosophy is to try to focus on quality, be it standing quality stallions or selling quality yearlings. We're a boutique operation.
"I truly consider bringing Empire Maker to Gainesway one of the best things I've ever done in my whole life."