LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Decades of breeding, training and riding - the precise combination of star-studded careers - coalesce at this select moment.
Empire Maker is the heavy favorite to win the 129th Kentucky Derby today at Churchill Downs. From even before his unsteady feet touched down in Kentucky on April 27, 2000 - from the planning of his breeding - he was destined to run for the roses.
Shortly after he turned 2, the manager of Juddmonte Farms, the nation's preeminent breeding establishment, told trainer Bobby Frankel: "Here's your Derby horse for 2003."
Yesterday, standing outside Barn 43, Frankel summed up the Derby quest of Empire Maker, capped by the week's tumult over the colt's bruised foot.
"His script is already written," Frankel said. "If he's meant to win, he'll win. ... Bet against him at your own risk."
Empire Maker is the star attraction in a diluted field of 16 3-year-olds. Seventeen entered, but Sir Cherokee, impressive winner of the Arkansas Derby, was withdrawn yesterday because of a slight fracture in his right rear leg.
The colt's exodus was the latest in a long list of injuries to leaders of this once-mighty 3-year-old class. As Vindication, Toccet, Sky Mesa, Soto, Kafwain and others dropped by the wayside, Empire Maker gradually climbed from regally bred, princely colt to bona fide favorite to win the Derby and maybe even to sweep the Triple Crown.
For Juddmonte, breeder of international champions, Empire Maker is the culmination of a quarter century of trying to master bloodlines. The winner of four Eclipse Awards as North America's outstanding breeder, Juddmonte maintains a picturesque farm in Kentucky for its owner, Saudi Arabian Prince Khalid Abdullah.
Frankel, 61, Juddmonte's North American trainer, has made the transition from training claimers to grass runners to older horses to Triple Crown contenders. He has honed his skills during 37 years of training, as if his induction into racing's Hall of Fame and each of his four Eclipse Awards as top trainer were preparation for this moment with Empire Maker.
Jerry Bailey, 45, Frankel's primary jockey, has ridden each of Toussaud's winning babies, learning their idiosyncrasies and applying the lessons to the headstrong Empire Maker. Bailey is also a member of the Hall of Fame. He has won six of the past eight Eclipse Awards as the continent's outstanding jockey.
A two-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, Bailey said Empire Maker has more potential than any 3-year-old he has ever ridden. The colt hinted at that in winning the Florida Derby in March by 9 3/4 lengths, the biggest margin in race history.
Then he won the Wood Memorial Stakes three weeks ago by a measured half length, persuading his trainer and jockey he had saved his best for today.
But this week, a flaw appeared. A bruise on Empire Maker's right front foot caused concern - but only temporary concern, Frankel insisted. The colt is perfectly sound, he said.
And yesterday, during his morning gallop at Churchill Downs, Empire Maker abruptly turned right toward the gap that leads back to his stall. Frankel said, again, no problem; he's done that before.
"He's making a soap opera of it," Frankel said, grinning. "The drama rises!"
The quirky Empire Maker, like all his siblings, takes after his eccentric mother, Toussaud. A resident of Juddmonte in Lexington, she is one of the all-time great producers of thoroughbreds. Six of her foals have raced, and four have won Grade I stakes. No living broodmare has more Grade I winners in North America.
Empire Maker is Toussaud's sixth baby, but her first by Unbridled, who won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic in 1990. By the time Juddmonte bred its prized mare to Unbridled, the farm's brain trust knew from trial and error what it was looking for: a colt exactly like Empire Maker, robust and fast.
Frankel trained Toussaud as well as her babies. He said Empire Maker is the biggest, strongest and has the most ability.
"He was born to run a mile and a quarter," Frankel said.
An often-repeated statistic says favorites seldom win the Derby. Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 was the first favorite to win since Spectacular Bid in 1979.
Bob Baffert, winner of three Derbies, thought he had a potential Triple Crown winner two years ago with Point Given. He ran fifth in the Derby.
"If he can get beat," Baffert said, "anybody can get beat."
Wally Dollase, trainer of Ten Most Wanted, says he has the horse who can beat Empire Maker. Ron Ellis, trainer of Atswhatimtalknbout, says his horse is the potential upsetter. And Frankel has a second powerful runner in Peace Rules.
Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas, the dominant Derby trainers the past decade, have horses in the race. Buddy Gil from California and Funny Cide from New York will attempt to become the first geldings to win the Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.