After watching stable star Glorious Empire finish last in the Breeders’ Cup Turf in November, trainer Chuck Lawrence turned away from the track and offered the only excuse he could come up with at the time.
“Well, he must have bled again.”
Lawrence walked through the Churchill Downs winner’s circle to unsaddle the only Grade 1 winner of his training career. And wonder what went wrong. The 7-year-old had thrived since Saratoga, handled the van ride from Maryland, impressed in his handful of morning gallops over the sealed track in Kentucky and even came through the chaos of a Breeders’ Cup paddock scene. But he wilted on the biggest stage in racing.
Then everything changed. Glorious Empire cooled out like a horse who barely raced, passed every post-race exam including a clean scope of his lungs and ate every oat in his feed tub that night. Back home at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland was more of the same. Two weeks after the Breeders’ Cup, Lawrence and owner Matt Schera started thinking about another race.
“We were sitting there with as Matt said ‘a fit horse,’ ” said Lawrence. “We were thinking of going to California (for the Hollywood Turf Cup) but that was Thanksgiving weekend and a longer trip for the horse so we axed that.”
Gulfstream Park’s Ft. Lauderdale Dec. 15 might work though – was closer to home, better timing, on a track that hosts a $7 million turf race in January. All the while, Glorious Empire trained like Adonis Creed. He worked 6 furlongs in 1:15.80 on Fair Hill’s Tapata track Nov. 17, came back 10 days later and went in 1:13.40. On Dec. 6, he went the last 5 furlongs of a 6-furlong move in :59 and change.
Lawrence called van driver Howard Peyton and mapped out a road trip, thanks to a little advice.
“I talked to Danielle Hodsdon, who used to work for Jonathan Sheppard and she said they won a lot of races shipping from Pennsylvania to Camden and then to Gulfstream,” said Lawrence. “But they shipped to Gulfstream on Thursday for Saturday. So I did that. We went to Camden to break the trip up.”
Trainer Mickey Preger found a stall at Camden Training Center, and not just any stall. The Monday before the Ft. Lauderdale, Glorious Empire bedded down in the former barn of Hall of Fame trainer Frank Whiteley – whose charges included all-timers Damascus, Ruffian and Forego on a list of greats.
The history was not lost on Lawrence.
“Can you imagine the champions that have walked around here in front of this barn?” he asked Peyton while walking Glorious Empire one morning. The hair stood up on the back of Lawrence’s neck.
The former jump jockey rode a race for Whiteley and Andrea King in 1986 – it didn’t go well – and remembered a dinner and a conversation in Camden beforehand.
“What an unbelievable horseman,” Lawrence said. “We were so lucky to have such horsemen that crossed our paths.”
Whiteley, who died in 2008, would have liked Glorious Empire – whose career seems reborn at age 7 after being all but retired due to chronic bleeding. At Camden, the Irish-bred trained on a half-mile sand track Tuesday and Wednesday morning (a hard frost moved the second gallop from the turf).
Thursday, he got back on Peyton’s trailer and headed for Florida. He galloped at Gulfstream Friday and Saturday morning and galloped again Saturday afternoon with a front-running romp in the $200,000 Ft. Lauderdale. With Edgar Prado aboard, Glorious Empire put up fractions of :23.57 and :48.13. After 6 furlongs in 1:12.57, he kicked away from 12 rivals and won by 2 1/2 lengths in 1:48.44 for 1 1/8 miles. The performance didn’t truly surprise Lawrence – he knows how good his horse is – but it did help ease the pain of the Breeders’ Cup.
“He’s such a talented horse and I was so glad to see him show it,” said the trainer. “The Breeders’ Cup I have to say was so disappointing. We went in with guns loaded. He was training like a monster, everybody was talking about how good he looked. It was a huge disappointment to basically be eased.”
Lawrence and Schera are still grasping for answers to the poor performance. Soft, chewed up turf contributed. So did a fast pace. Lawrence credited jockey Julien Leparoux, who was out of the country in mid-December and unable to ride at Gulfstream, with easing the horse late once he was hopelessly beaten. Glorious Empire finished 64 lengths behind Enable in the Turf, looking nothing like the horse who won the Grade 2 Bowling Green and Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga.
“If you look at the Ft. Lauderdale the other day and the Sword Dancer and look at the Breeders’ Cup it’s like he couldn’t get hold of the ground,” Lawrence said. “The other day it was like his feet weren’t even hitting the turf. He wasn’t the same horse at Churchill as he was at Saratoga or at Gulfstream.”
That horse, the one with three graded stakes wins and $767,830 earned this year, is suddenly an Eclipse Award contender. In a muddied male turf division, he’s in the conversation with turf sprinter Stormy Liberal, miler Heart To Heart and a few others.
They believe in their horse, but call Schera and Lawrence surprised. When the gelding lined up in Laurel Park’s Henry Clark Stakes in April, he was on nobody’s Eclipse Award ballot. He’d won once in seven starts in 2017, and ended the campaign by bleeding and being pulled up in the BWI Turf Cup at Laurel in September. In between, he’d nearly been retired and went to South Carolina for some recovery – first with Jill Waterman and later with Roddy Mackenzie at Camden Training Center. Schera called Lawrence about taking the horse, who was in Carlos Martin’s barn last year.
“Chuck, I’m sending you this horse,” the owner told the trainer. “Don’t look at his last couple races and judge him. He’s got a ton of talent. Maybe the Fair Hill environment will help him, maybe we can help him. You’ve had success with these older turf horses for me before, maybe we can do something here.”
Expectations were low. Thinking Glorious Empire would be tough in starter races later in the year, Schera would have run for a $16,000 claiming tag in the comeback race. Lawrence, after seeing a few workouts and getting to know the horse, was having none of it.
“Chuck didn’t think that was a good idea,” said Schera. “I didn’t want to lose him for 16 or lose him at all. I just thought we could get him eligible for starters and win some races with him. Nobody was going to claim him off that last race.”
But they could have, so in his first race in almost seven months Glorious Empire went to the stakes at Laurel and finished fourth behind stakes horses Caribou Club, Doctor Mounty and Phlash Phelps. More importantly, no bleeding. In June at Delaware Park, Glorious Empire started for a $65,000 claiming price and won by 4 lengths. He repeated that performance at 23-1 in the Grade 2 Bowling Green, dead-heating with Channel Maker, and did it once again – only better – in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer.
Then came the clunker at the Breeders’ Cup. Enable wasn’t going to lose that day, but Sadler’s Joy finished third and Glorious Empire beat him twice at Saratoga.
“If you take out the Breeders’ Cup – and it’s unfortunate that it’s a pretty big one to take out – he had a great year,” said Schera. “A championship didn’t even hit me at first, but I looked at Male Turf and I can make case for Heart to Heart, I can make a case for Stormy Liberal. But I think our case is just as good as anybody else’s, and I’m not campaigning. It’s been an amazing year.”
And an amazing story.
“It’s almost magical with this horse,” Shera said. “Things like this don’t usually happen. He’s kind of like the guy who turned his life around. Now look at him.”
Lawrence agreed, and gave Glorious Empire all the credit.
“It had been the furthest thing from my mind ever,” the trainer said of the Eclipse Award. “I’ve been around Graham Motion winning them and back in the day with (1983 older female champion) Ambassador Of Luck with Mickey Preger. I really hadn’t thought about it. Then all this transpired and it makes you start to dream. What an honor to have a horse that’s even being talked about doing it.
“He’s got the talent of a champion. He’s incredible.”
NOTES: Glorious Empire was back at Fair Hill this week, and will be pointed for the Pegasus Turf Jan. 26. Lawrence said he’d follow a similar schedule to the Ft. Lauderdale preparations with perhaps an earlier move to Camden depending on the weather . . . The only male turf horse to win two Grade 1 stakes in 2018 was Heart To Heart (the Gulfstream Park Turf and the Makers 46 Mile). He lost his four other starts including a sixth in the Fourstardave and a ninth in the Shadwell Mile. Of the 21 horses in the Male Turf category of the Eclipse Awards voter guide, Raging Bull leads with five wins (all against 3-year-olds). Glorious Empire (two Grade 2, one Grade 1) and Stormy Liberal (a Grade 1 and a Grade 3) won four races each . . . Lawrence rode 1994 steeplechase champion Warm Spell.