The $245,000 Bowling Green (G2) started out as a leisurely Sunday stroll for turf veterans, but turned into a mad dash for the wire at Saratoga. Rockemperor, the 2.45-1 favorite, delivered a perfectly-timed move to beat troubled comebacker Arklow by a half-length.
Winning rider Flavien Prat made what proved to be a key decision in the early going. Rockemperor was initially parked in last as his stablemate from the Chad Brown barn, L’Imperator, secured the early lead through an opening quarter in :24.62. The pace then slackened through splits of :50.21 and 1:16.21, and Prat had Rockemperor creep up a spot in fourth. That relegated Arklow to the rear of the quintet, and set the stage for their contrasting fortunes in the lane.
L’Imperator began to quicken passing the mile mark in 1:40.65, getting away from longtime attendant Highland Chief and continuing to hold sway in midstretch. But L’Imperator couldn’t outkick a fellow son of Holy Roman Emperor, Rockemperor.
Accelerating inside the final furlong, Rockemperor collared his stablemate and struck the front. The only danger was Arklow, who had been stuck behind horses when Rockemperor was rolling on the outside. Finally out into the clear, Arklow showed he retained plenty of zip as an eight-year-old, and closed the gap. But Rockemperor had done enough to hold on in 2:15.81 for 1 3/8 miles on the firm inner turf.
L’Imperator was the same half-length margin back in third. Highland Chief faded to fourth, and Cross Border, the two-time defending champion, trailed. Cibolian was scratched after finishing ninth in Saturday’s Niagara S. at Woodbine.
Brown, narrowly denied the exacta, was pleased with how both horses and riders performed.
“He’d been working really well,” Brown said of Rockemperor. “The key to this horse is getting him on firm turf like today. He had a really good trip today and I was really pleased with the way it worked out. Flavien did a great job.
“We had a plan and it pretty much went exactly the way we thought for both horses. Manny (Franco, aboard L’Imperator) rode a great race and almost pulled it off. We talked about using him a bit early and then then backing it up down the backside and he did it beautifully.”
Now a millionaire with $1,134,909 in earnings from a 25-5-5-6 record, Rockemperor was improving on his rallying second in last year’s Bowling Green. The six-year-old has often settled for minor awards, beginning with the 2019 Prix La Force (G3) during the French phase of his career. Third in the Belmont Derby (G1) in his U.S. bow, he also placed in the 2020 Manhattan (G1), Charles Whittingham (G2), Muniz Memorial Classic (G2), and pandemic-postponed Turf Classic (G1) on Kentucky Derby Day, as well as the 2021 Fort Marcy (G2).
Rockemperor at last broke through with a stakes victory in last fall’s Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1). But the bay lost the plot again, turning in a series of unplaced efforts capped by a fifth in the June 11 Manhattan.
Reuniting with Prat here might have been significant. The Frenchman had ridden him just twice before, to an allowance score and a close fifth in the Nov. 26 Hollywood Turf Cup (G2), where he was beaten only 1 1/2 lengths. While Brown cited firm turf as his prerequisite, Rockemperor apparently needs more than just the course condition to galvanize him.
Conversely, Arklow’s rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., was immediately critiquing himself.
“I think we were unlucky, or I waited too long maybe – too long to get him out,” said Ortiz, who was riding the Brad Cox runner for the first time. “That’s what I think. (He will improve next time) for sure.”
Cox was satisfied with Arklow’s excellent comeback run, his tune-up for the Sept. 10 Kentucky Downs Turf Cup (G2).
“I thought he was ready to run today and he was; came up a little bit short. We didn’t really have a clean run down the lane, but overall, this was a step towards Kentucky Downs, and we’re going to hopefully be competitive for the race he always shows up (in),” Cox said.
“I think he wins (with a cleaner trip). I think he’s right there – he was right there – but he makes it very, very interesting if he gets a clean run down the lane.
“He’s never been a fantastic work horse, but steady enough and he hasn’t lost a step at the age of eight, or certainly doesn’t appear to. I thought it was a great race off the layoff.”
Arklow pushed his bankroll past the $3 million threshold on Sunday. The venerable son of Arch, still an entire, can pad that figure as he returns to Kentucky Downs for the fifth straight year. Twice a winner of the Turf Cup (2018 and 2020), he’s been second in the same lucrative race in 2019 and 2021.
Rockemperor’s itinerary is to be determined.
“He’s getting up there in age,” Brown said, “but he’s starting to round back into form. I think the key is getting into the fall and getting the firmer ground is going to be a little more challenging. We’ll keep every option open and see where he takes us.”
Campaigned by Madaket Stables, Michael Dubb, Wonder Stables, Michael E. Kisber, and Michael J. Caruso, Rockemperor was bred in Ireland by Haras du Mezeray. His dam, the stakes-placed Muhtathir mare Motivation, is herself out of a full sister to multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Yagli. Rockemperor’s fourth dam is Broodmare of the Year Best in Show.