April 11, 2021

Why the Holy Bull loss historically hurts Classic Empire’s Kentucky Derby prospects

History is not presently on Classic Empire's side with respect to his Kentucky Derby (G1) chances (Benoit Photos)

The lathered neck. The apprehension at being loading into the starting gate. All the last-second signs suggested that a sub-par effort from juvenile champion Classic Empire was forthcoming in Saturday’s Holy Bull (G2).

“He just did not make the trip down there well,” was trainer Mark Casse’s Sunday morning analysis of the situation. The colt traveled to Gulfstream from his Palm Meadows base Saturday morning, a change from his typical routine of shipping in advance of race day.

While Casse said “the battle is far from over” with respect to Classic Empire’s Kentucky Derby (G1) prospects, connections have virtually given up fighting the Derby prep war on the Gulfstream front.

“I would say more than likely you won’t see him back at Gulfstream again,” Casse said. “We’re already thinking about where we want to go, but wherever it is it will be somewhere he will train a little bit there before he runs.”

This was not the first time in recent years that the Holy Bull swallowed up and spit out the reigning champion juvenile. Both Shanghai Bobby (2013) and Hansen (2012) lost their respective sophomore season openers in the race, but Classic Empire was more heavily favored and ran far worse than those two did.

History has not been necessarily kind to juvenile champions that lose their first outing at three, at least with respect to Kentucky Derby success. Since 1967, the nine juvenile champions that went on to win the Derby — Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Foolish Pleasure, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Street Sense, American Pharoah, and Nyquist — all won their three-year-old debuts, whether they were allowances or stakes, sprints or routes.

That’s actually a strike rate of only 50 percent. Juvenile champions of the last 50 years that won their first start at three before the Derby AND started in the Run for the Roses also lost nine times. Silent Screen, Honest Pleasure, Rockhill Native, Chief’s Crown, Easy Goer, Fly So Free, Arazi, Favorite Trick, and Lookin at Lucky belong in the latter club.

A potential half a loaf is better than none of it, though. Ten of the 16 juvenile champions that lost their three-year-old debut pre-Derby also lost the first classic and the other six failed to even make the race.

Let’s simplify this as much as possible. Since year-end polls began in the latter half of the 1930s, only one juvenile champion, Needles (1956), has rebounded from a season-opening loss and prevailed on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

Where does Classic Empire go from here? The $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby (G2) on March 11 involves the easiest ship. The $900,000 Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn one week later is obviously more lucrative. Either one gives him plenty of time to get one more prep in before the Kentucky Derby.

Whichever way he goes, Classic Empire has a lot of history to buck to wear the roses.