Classic Empire brought huge expectations into 2017 but little had gone right for the 2-year-old champion. The Mark Casse-trained son of Pioneerof the Nile turned things around in grand style Saturday, rallying to win the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) going away at Oaklawn Park, and likely established himself as the Kentucky Derby favorite.
He definitely will add plenty of star power to the first leg of the American Triple Crown at Churchill Downs on May 6.
Owned by John Oxley, Classic Empire showed high speed in his last victory, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) but the bay colt wasn’t eager from the Arkansas Derby starting gate despite returning from a 70-day layoff, settling off the early leaders entering the first turn after breaking from post 2.
Sunland Derby (G3) runner-up Conquest Mo Money sped forward from his outside gate to contest the pace with 85-1 longshot Grandpa’s Dream, dueling through a swift opening quarter-mile in :22.75 before taking a short lead, with Petrov and 2-1 second choice Malagacy also in close attendance.
Classic Empire and jockey Julien Leparoux rated in seventh as the field made its way down the backstretch, about three lengths behind fractions of :46.92 and 1:11.16. Leparoux continued to bide his time through the far turn, waiting patiently before calling on his mount as they turned for home.
Malagacy drew even with Conquest Mo Money nearing the completion of the far turn and the duo engaged in a heated battle until the latter stages, with both runners weaving in and out as they began to tire in the lane.
Classic Empire loomed prominently closing four-wide into the stretch and carried his momentum to the wire, rallying powerfully past rivals in the final furlong as he proved best by a half-length. Off as the 9-5 favorite, he completed 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.93.
Conquest Mo Money courageously saved second as the 17-1 ninth choice among 12 runners, a length better than the late-running Lookin at Lee in third. The runner-up isn’t Triple Crown eligible but is expected to be supplemented for a $200,000 fee.
Lookin at Lee, who was off at 12-1, is squarely on the Kentucky Derby bubble with 32 points. Fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he had to alter course repeatedly for running room while flying late in a career-best effort. It was another half-length to the maiden Sonneteer, who closed belatedly for fourth at 12-1.
Classic Empire has now won 5-of-7 starts, posting smashing wins in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and Bashford Manor (G3) last summer, and his only setback as a juvenile came when he reared at the start of the Hopeful (G1) and dislodged the rider.
He was favored at 1-2 when opening the year in the February 4 Holy Bull (G3) at Gulfstream Park but never fired after appearing agitated and sweaty in the post parade, checking a well-beaten third. A foot abscess was discovered afterward, requiring some time off to heal. After being a clean bill of health, Classic Empire refused to work a couple of times at Palm Meadows and connections decided to send him to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Florida where Classic Empire recorded a trio of workouts in preparation for the Arkansas Derby.
Bred in Kentucky by Steven and Brandi Nicholson, Classic Empire was purchased for $475,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale. He’s out of the Cat Thief mare Sambuca Classica and counts stakes winners Anytime Magic and Uptown Twirl as half-siblings. The multiple Grade 1-placed stakes winner In Her Glory is his second maternal dam.
Classic Empire has now earned $2,120,220 and will try to keep moving forward in the three-week interim to the Kentucky Derby.
Arkansas Derby Quotes:
Winning trainer Mark Casse, Classic Empire:
“He just has so much ability. I knew if we could get him here that he’d be tough. He’s been a challenge, but the last month and a half have been good — a lot of chapters to the book I’m writing (laughs).
“What can you say about the Oaklawn crowd. There are very few crowds like Oaklawn. They love the horse…. As a trainer, you want to be around people who love horse racing. That’s what you do this for.”
Was it nerve-wracking? Exciting? Were you tense?
“I was pretty nervous. We run a lot of places, but I was probably a little more nervous. I went and walked up and down inside, watched it on TV. About the eighth pole everybody around me started looking, because I was doing some yelling. I wasn’t sure he was going to get there. I was afraid that maybe late he’d get tired. But it was exciting. I’ll never forget it.”
On Classic Empire flying back to Louisville Monday
“That’s home for him. We’ll get him back there and come up with a game plan. I think the toughest deal is over, getting to this point. Now he won’t have to do too much going into the Derby.”
Would you have been satisfied if second, because it would have accomplished what you wanted?
“I would have been. That thought went through my head about the eighth pole. I said, ‘He’s running well. If he runs 1-2-3, that’s OK, second or third.’ But I never gave up. I was still wanting him to win, but that thought did go through my head.”
What it meant to win for the Oxleys
“They’ve brought us to a new front. The Oxleys have put so much confidence in myself and my team, you want to reward that confidence. And today was a little bit of the reward.”
Winning Owner John Oxley:
Did you think he could do this today?
“I did late last year because we’d just won the Juvenile and were 2-year-old champion. So there was a lot of confidence there. But we ran into a few issues, and thanks to the genius of Mark Casse — brilliant trainer — we found the solution. We had Julien aboard; he stayed with us of course. We found a rider named Martin (Rivera). I think he was the wild card. The horse respected him, he trained so well with him and here we are.”
Asked if he can hold back that smile of going to the Ky Derby?
“No. I cannot. I hope it will be on there. I hope it doesn’t crack, that it stays with me. And it will.”
“Any owner who goes to a Grade 1 Derby prep would have to be a little bit nervous. And I filled the bill… It felt really great the last 30 seconds.”
Winning jockey Julien Leparoux aboard Classic Empire:
Mark wasn’t sure you would get up in time, did you?
“He wasn’t 100% today, so I was expecting him to be a little tired. He is a nice horse. He did it today. I wanted to have a nice race for him. To be in the (Kentucky) Derby, I knew I had to finish in top 4. I think he is a special horse.”
How much better was he today than when he was 3rd in the Holy Bull?
“Much better. He walked in the gate and relaxed. He took me to the race. Usually he is a little keen and today he was, which is a good sign for him. In the Holy Bull he was just not himself, I was laying 3rd, but I didn’t feel like I had too much horse at that time. So today I knew I was loaded. I just needed to get there.”
With all that the horse has been through, how did you guys not lose faith?
“It was a tough winter, I am not going to lie. Come January we expected so much from him and after the Holy Bull he just went downhill from there. It was hard to see whenever we got off the wagon, but at the same time we were running out of time. Today was the last race we could get before the Derby (Kentucky), so it was very important for us to get in. Mark and his team did an awesome job, so the credit goes to them.”
There was a lot of speed in the race, and people thought he might have a trip problems, but he seemed to do what you wanted him to do?
“He is a very professional animal. He was a little fresh today, pulling a little bit, but other than that he did very good.”
Jockey Jorge Carreno on 2nd place finisher Conquest Mo Money:
“I have been that horse and that was the best he ever felt, I think he is going to get better and better. All I can say is he is a warrior, a fighter, he doesn’t give up. He gave me all he got to the end, same as he did in the Sunland Derby. This is a special horse, the best one I have ever been on since I started riding. And I fully believe he will keep getting better. I am just going to keep working and hope to get to the Kentucky Derby. I thought I had it.”
Trainer Miguel Hernandez, second with Conquest Mo Money:
“Oh, my God, it’s so exciting. I want to say 100 yards from the wire, I said, ‘I got it, I got it, I got it.’ It was exciting. Right by the three-quarter pole, I thought he was going to quit. He came back. I’m happy with the way he ran.”
Trainer Steve Asmussen, third with Lookin At Lee:
“He’s a tremendous horse. He’s just been so fun. He just shows up. He’s sixth 70 yards from the wire. I mean, he never quits trying, and you’d love to see him rewarded for that effort.”
Will prepare toward Derby as if will get in
“The good news is we’re stabled at Churchill. He will fly to Louisville on Monday.”
On Untrapped, sixth as the third choice:
“Disappointed with the end result. Had a little bit of a wide trip and didn’t stay on.”
Jockey Luis Contreras, 3rd on Lookin At Lee:
“Well yeah he got up perfectly so nice and comfortable. I swinged to the outside and I didn’t want to lose momentum so I didn’t drop inside. I thought I was going to get to the inside but he was kind of dead. I pulled outside and he started to run again, I don’t know. It was a perfect race, he tried so hard.”