June 21, 2024

Angel of Empire takes flight in Arkansas Derby

Angel of Empire wins the Arkansas Derby (Photo by Coady Photography)

Backing up his victory in the Feb. 18 Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds, Albaugh Family Stables’ Angel of Empire stormed to an even more decisive success in Saturday’s $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park. The Brad Cox trainee enhanced his Kentucky Derby (G1) credentials, and added 100 points, to bring up his total to 154.

As in the Risen Star, Angel of Empire capitalized on a strong pace at the 1 1/8-mile trip. Two Eagles River sped ahead through fractions of :23.27 and :47.26, with the 3.30-1 Reincarnate tracking intently. By the time Two Eagles River reached six furlongs in 1:12.24, Reincarnate was getting nudged to pick up. Rocket Can, the 2.70-1 favorite, was within close striking range, but not making headway.

Angel of Empire was already on the move for Flavien Prat, who earlier steered stablemate Wet Paint to a commanding score in the Fantasy (G3). Behind the immediate gaggle of pursuers in a clear seventh early, Angel of Empire began to outmove them on the far turn. His momentum propelled him past Two Eagles River and Reincarnate in upper stretch, and he ran up the score to 4 1/4 lengths.

Emulating his sire Classic Empire, the 2017 Arkansas Derby hero, Angel of Empire clocked 1:49.68 and returned $11.40. In Pool 6 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager that closed Saturday evening before the major preps, he closed at 29-1.

“It’s huge – big day,” Cox said of his sophomore stakes triple, the Derby and Oaks prep rompers plus  Eyeing Clover’s score in the Hot Springs S.

“Very impressed with this horse, how he ran today. He came home quick, and he’s a horse that, the longer (he goes), the better. Looking forward to getting him to the Kentucky Derby in five weeks.

“It was a good group of horses. I didn’t think there was a standout or a leader — obviously Forte is the leader of the division – (but) I felt it was a nice open race that anybody could step up and win it. And he stepped up. He was very impressive today. I always thought he’d be better with more ground and obviously he’s 2-for-2 at a mile and an eighth. Hopefully we can be 1-for-1 at a mile and a quarter in five weeks.”

King Russell, the 58-1 longest shot on the board coming off a maiden win, closed to snatch second from the one-paced Reincarnate and Rocket Can. That result is worth 40 points for the Ron Moquett trainee, who was just made a late nominee to the Triple Crown.

Reincarnate, always thereabouts but failing to lift, salvaged third by a head. Adding 30 points to his ledger, the Tim Yakteen trainee has a total of 45.

Fourth-placer Rocket Can picked up another 20 points to increase his tally to 60. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott noted that the colt keeps implying he has more up his sleeve.

“Had a pretty good trip – tick wide, but not bad,” Mott said. “Really made it around the first turn pretty good. Had a clear trip. He moved up to third going around the (second turn) and then just couldn’t find that other gear that he needed to go on.

“The winner (Angel of Empire) won pretty impressively, the way it looked, and we were very close for second. I think there’s a little more there. And (jockey) Junior (Alvarado) is the same. He (Rocket Can) gives you the feeling there’s a little more there, but he’s just not quite giving it all to you yet.” 

The non-nominated Airtime was another half-length back in fifth (10 points). Red Route One didn’t fire as much as hoped in first-time blinkers and settled for sixth. Next came Two Eagles River, Interlock Empire, Harlocap, and Bourbon Bash. Kolomio was scratched.

The Pennsylvania-bred Angel of Empire is a millionaire now with earnings of $1,069,375 from a 6-4-1-0 line. That second-place effort came in the Jan. 1 Smarty Jones here, when his front-running stablemate, Victory Formation, controlled the pace going a mile. The bay took a step forward in the Risen Star, and showed that he’s getting seriously good at the right time in Arkansas.

“Age, just developing,” Cox said of the colt’s progress. “The older he’s getting, the better he’s getting, bottom line. I think he really took to six weeks between races. He ran well here to start the year. He showed that he was going to want more ground….

“Out of the Risen Star, I thought he was just maybe a little tucked up, a little tired. He’s come around over the last three, four weeks. Now he’s back in top form and very happy how he looked physically leading up to this.”

 Cox also commented on Angel of Empire’s unflappable temperament as a plus.

“His mind. Just watching him in the paddock, I was telling Jason (Loutsch of Albaugh Family Stables), ‘He’s a cool, calm horse. If there is anybody who can handle 150,000 people (at the Kentucky Derby) it would be this horse.’ And then the way he presented himself. Once he was tacked up, he was out in the infield, kind of got on his toes but didn’t get hot. It was good energy.”

Loutsch was celebrating the big win while also noting that two other Albaugh colorbearers could be in the Run for the Roses. Jace’s Road, winner of the Gun Runner S. and most recently third in the Louisiana Derby (G2), and Cyclone Mischief, third to champion Forte in Saturday’s Florida Derby (G1), each have 45 points.

“To have three potential starters in the Kentucky Derby is a dream come true,” Loutsch said. “I just can’t hardly believe it. I’m so thankful for my father-in-law (Dennis Albaugh), that he believed in us and got us to this point.”

Albaugh Family Stables purchased Angel of Empire for $70,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. Bred by Forgotten Land Investment and Black Diamond Equine Corp. in the Keystone State, he initially RNA’d for $32,000 as a weanling at the same venue the prior November. His dam, the To Honor and Serve mare Armony’s Angel, is a half-sister to Grade 2 scorer Conquest Big E. This is the further family of Angel of Empire’s stablemate and erstwhile rival Victory Formation.