In quick-footed family, she's mother superior

Horse racing: No broodmare stands taller than Toussaud, whose colt, Empire Maker, is expected to burnish his mom's reputation in the Kentucky Derby.

Kentucky Derby

April 30, 2003|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LEXINGTON, Ky. - When Garrett O'Rourke came to this country in 1986 from his native Ireland, he wasn't a basketball fan. But when he saw Michael Jordan play, he knew he was watching the ultimate in greatness, a man doing things perhaps no other had done.

Nor was O'Rourke a golf fan. But when he saw Tiger Woods play, he knew he was watching perhaps the greatest golfer in history, a man doing things unique in his sport.

O'Rourke, 39, is manager of Judd- monte Farms, the pre-eminent breeder of thoroughbreds in the United States. When he sees Toussaud, the gentle mare and grand dame at Juddmonte in Lexington, he sees profound achievement on a par with that of Jordan and Woods.

"There are great broodmares, and two or three are the greatest broodmares of all time," O'Rourke says. "When you're watching Toussaud, you know you're watching one of them."

Toussaud is the dam of Empire Maker, winner of the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial Stakes and overwhelming favorite to win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Toussaud gave birth to Empire Maker after being bred to Unbridled, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic in 1990.

Usually, the talk about Derby candidates and their pedigrees center on the sire. But this year the spotlight falls on the dam whose winning offspring have made her, quite simply, the best broodmare in the world.

Her own dam was Image of Reality, and Toussaud (Too-So) is named after Madame Tussaud's Exhibition, the wax museum in London.

Toussaud is long and thick, with a rich brown coat and a gorgeous face ranging in shade from cherry to mahogany to black. She has a wide forehead with a distinctive white star.

Her most remarkable feature, however, are her eyes. They are the color of molasses, rich and mesmerizing. And her eyes reveal another remarkable feature: her alertness.

She sees everything. She hears everything. She investigates everything. A photographer in her stall with cameras and lenses provides a riddle of sounds and smells. Toussaud cocks her head. She pricks her ears. You sense her wonderment and react with awe. You reach out your hand to touch her.

But always with Toussaud, it is on her terms. It has always been that way, and no one doubts it will always be that way.

Bobby Frankel, who trained Toussaud as well as all Judd- monte's horses in this country, remembers Toussaud, the maverick, as one big headache.

"She never trained conventionally, not one day," said Frankel, a member of racing's Hall of Fame. "She was the best filly in the country, by far, but I got to where I didn't want to train her one more day."

Toussaud refused to gallop in the mornings alone. Frankel always had to send out other horses with her. She got so she wouldn't break into a breeze, a workout at near-race speed, unless Frankel sent her to the gate and let her start as if racing.

She would gallop and suddenly turn to the right. She would jog and suddenly stop. Or she'd be walking to the track and stop dead.

David Flores, a jockey who rode her in one race and during training in the morning, said: "When she stopped, that was it. You had to turn her around and take her back home."

She won seven of her 15 races, all on turf, including the Grade I Gamely Handicap at Hollywood Park and three other graded stakes. At the end of her 1993 season, with Frankel nursing his headache, she was sent to Judd- monte. Back at the spacious, pristine farm where she was born and raised, Toussaud began her second career of producing racehorses.

Of her six foals who have raced, four have won Grade I stakes, the premier races in the sport. Only two other mares in North America have produced four Grade I winners, and both mares are dead: Fall Aspen and Dahlia.

Toussaud, 14, has a yearling filly by Seeking the Gold and a weanling filly by Kimgmambo. She is being bred this year to A.P. Indy. With her produce record and the quality of those sires, chances are good at least one of her babies will grow up and win a Grade I stakes, placing her alone on the pedestal of exalted broodmares.

Toussaud has passed on her quirkiness to her babies, and Empire Maker is no exception. His jockey, Jerry Bailey, tops in the business, has ridden all but one of Toussand's foals who've raced. He says he's learned you make suggestions to them; you don't tell them what to do.

As Empire Maker approaches the Kentucky Derby, the race for which he was bred and, perhaps, is destined to win, Toussaud has received so much attention that she may already be the most publicized mare in history. Juddmonte, a private farm owned by the intensely private Prince Khalid Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, has opened its gates to the selected media.

O'Rourke said there's a simple reason for that.

"We think she deserves it," he said. "I'm tickled to death for her. I admire this mare, and I especially appreciate how much she's overcome, probably more than most horses ever overcome."

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