For all his life, Flaming Emperor has been undersold, underplayed and undervalued. He has risen to the upper echelon among Maryland-bred racehorses and curiously remained an underdog, a perception not likely to change for today's Fort McHenry Handicap at Laurel.
With Maryland-bred turf champion Ten Keys bypassing the $100,000 race, the Fort McHenry has become a more reachable goal for the 14 interested trainers. Flaming Emperor's strong record and $307,346 earnings have made him second highweight at 116 pounds -- three fewer than early favorite River Of Sin -- but his lack of a turf victory and general lack of appeal carry more weight, making him 15 to 1 on the program line.
Flaming Emperor struggled for credibility even before he stepped onto a racetrack. After his horses had won two races at Pimlico, young trainer Kenny Cox drove to Timonium for a sale of 2-year-olds in training. He bid $9,000 for a feisty colt by Hail Emperor out of Fuel To Burn, the first of many times Flaming Emperor would be sold short.
Now, 40 races and several stakes victories later, Flaming Emperor largely remains an unknown. Much of that is an extension of the stable; Cox, who turns 23 Thursday, is not a highly visible trainer, running a small operation that includes mostly claiming horses. Cox said he can deal with the lack of recognition, but what bothers him is that Flaming Emperor's success has generated no new owners. Each of Cox's eight horses belongs to his father.
"I was really surprised nobody approached me to train a horse or two for them," Cox said. "I guess age has a lot to do with it. But this is how a trainer builds a stable, with a horse like him."
When it comes to racing, Cox never has pampered Flaming Emperor. The chestnut 4-year-old is a workaholic, coming into the Fort McHenry off a four-week layoff -- his longest rest of the year. Cox planned to race him in New Hampshire early this month but reconsidered because of the weight assignment.
With the change in plan, Cox gave Flaming Emperor a sharp workout in advance of the Fort McHenry, seven furlongs in 1:26.