Three times. Empire Maker has stopped me in my tracks. Thudded me to silence. Jolted me from my thoughts.
The first time was on the first Saturday in May, standing next to Bobby Frankel, watching the Kentucky Derby, knowing what was going to happen all the way until it didn’t. Once when he left America to continue his stallion career in Japan, I read the headline and couldn’t process it, like an old friend telling you he’s leaving town and never coming back. And once, I guess for the last time, when I read the iconic stallion had died this week.
Like everybody who ever came across Frankel’s path, I fell for him and his horse. I was covering the Triple Crown for Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, ST Publishing and anybody who might want a snippet about the 2003 Triple Crown. Three years off riding races, I was enthralled by the new beat and oblivious to the low pay. Empire Maker was my Derby horse. Early. Long before he broke his maiden at Belmont Park in October, 2002, Frankel had told me about him, showed him to me. Frankel anointed him. I took it as gospel.
Somewhere along the line, MSNBC contacted me to help with a documentary about the Triple Crown. They were struggling with Frankel (shocker), flying me to California as the their ace reporter, we arrived at Frankel’s Santa Anita barn early one morning in early spring. He walked in the barn, looked at me, walked past and said (he didn’t ask), “What are you doing here?” The tack room door closed with a snap. With that, the producers swiveled and stared at me. “Don’t worry, he’ll come around.”
There are hours of footage somewhere of Frankel talking about his life, his horse.
After winning his debut at Belmont, Empire Maker lost the Remsen and the Sham. Undeterred, the son of Unbridled won the Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial. The Derby was a lock. Frankel was confident, despite a hoof that was bugging his star and morning antics where he contemplated training rather than completed training.
Race day, MSNBC’s producers Craig and Dora unveiled a pair of glasses with a camera in the center. Empire Maker was my muse. I met Frankel back at the barn, walked to the paddock with him, stood in the paddock with him as 10 furlongs of the Derby played out like a movie you had already seen. Well, almost 10 furlongs. In the last sixteenth of a mile when Funny Cide cannonballed into my baked cake, I stood in silence, you know the kind of silence, the flummoxed, how-can-this-be-happening kind of silence. And I was wearing Maxwell Smart glasses. They caught glimpses of Frankel, glimpses of shock. Former jump jockey and lifelong horseman, Barclay Tagg, winning the Derby with Funny Cide was completely lost on me, I was so perplexed by what had just happened.
Frankel skipped the Preakness of course and set his sights on the Belmont Stakes. Loaded gun meet target. Funny Cide’s burner had flamed out. Empire Maker had his day.
The documentary, Stable to Stardom, came out that summer. I’m not sure they used any footage from the glasses.
Goodbye, Empire Maker.