Classic Empire finally repaid his trainer Mark Casse’s patience and booked his Kentucky Derby starting gate with a win in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on Saturday at Oaklawn Park.
It was not an awe-inspiring display of superiority but provided a long-awaited first win as a three-year-old and gained the crucial qualifying points for the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Classic Empire was the 2/1 Arkansas Derby favorite and took the lead late in the stretch under Julien Leparoux, crossing the wire half a length ahead of Conquest Mo Money, the 18/1 outsider saddled by Miguel Hernandez. Steve Asmussen’s Lookin At Lee took third place, a length further back.
The second favorite, Todd Pletcher’s Malagacy at 11/5, ran short of gas when it mattered and could only finish fifth. It was not a total shock that Malagacy found this slightly longer distance of a mile and an eighth too much. Some form gurus had already spotted the weakness of his recent Grade 2 Rebel Stakes win, believing that stamina could be an issue for him and the horses that finished behind him in mid-March.
Casse was relieved and delighted with the performance of his juvenile champion. In his only other run this term, Classic Empire had sweated up badly in the preliminaries and disappointed. At Oaklawn Park he did not turn a hair, giving his connections renewed hope that this talented son of Pioneerof The Nile owned by John Oxley could be back on track before the gates even opened.
Classic Empire was drawn in gate two and broke well but quickly encountered traffic problems, getting squeezed between horses fighting for a more prominent early position than Leparoux actually wanted. Fortunately this colt, unlike some of his potential Kentucky Derby rivals, is not dependent on a particular running style and can adapt to different scenarios.
Leparoux reined Classic Empire back and let Grandpa’s Dream, closely pursued by Conquest Mo Money, head the pack after the first turn. Leparoux was two wide, three lengths off the lead in sixth place and still applying the brakes as they hit the back stretch.
Leparoux mentioned after the race that he was pleased that Classic Empire was so keen, suggesting that he had overcome the physical and subsequent attitude problems that had blighted his season so far.
After a 46.92 half mile Conquest Mo Money had his nose in front of the rail-hugging Grandpa’s Dream with Malagacy lurking on his quarters. Classic Empire had settled, allowing Leparoux to drop his hands, in seventh place behind a wall of three horses that tracked the leading trio.
At the turn at the top of the stretch Malagacy had his nose in front of Conquest Mo Money who had grabbed the rail while Untrapped was wide of the pair in third. A length behind that trio Grandpa’s Dream was weakening and Classic Empire was two wide of him, gaining momentum rather than losing speed.
Conquest Mo Money bravely reclaimed the lead from Malagacy in the style of a colt who really wants to win whilst Classic Empire had to run wide of the strongly ridden leading trio as they hit the stretch. Leparoux was pushing hard with his hands and heels but had not picked up his whip, two and a half lengths behind them.
About 150 yards from the wire Leparoux gave his colt one strike with the persuader. It had the desired effect and, confident in his superior engine power, Leparoux once again deployed hands and heels only to push Classic Empire past the long-battling leading pair. It was not spectacular but Classic Empire won more easily than the margin of his victory implies.
Hopes for a Triple Crown bid with Classic Empire have been reignited but, having turned into the stretch on the wrong lead, the colt changed leads close to the wire. His fans will have to hope that it is not a sign of a new physical issue to add to his inventory.
Mark Casse has three decades as a handler under his belt and has never lost faith in his precocious colt. He admits it has been difficult after his no show on his seasonal bow as a three-year-old and has confessed that he sometimes felt the urge to strangle this colt!
Classic Empire was the hot favorite in the Holy Bull Stakes in the first week of February at Gulfstream Park but could only finish third. It was a few days later that it became apparent that the colt was suffering from a foot abscess. That took quite some time to heal and when it did there appeared to be an issue with Classic Empire’s spine that could have been caused by his lameness.
After going through all that discomfort Classic Empire understandably had reservations about galloping and refused to work at Palm Meadows Training Center on March 19. Casse wisely decided a change of scene, away from his place of pain could be the answer to get him back on track. He relocated his star colt to Ocala Training Center with the desired results. He managed to complete four timed breezes prior to his victory.
Kentucky Derby Update
Prior to the Arkansas Derby Always Dreaming, the impressive Florida Derby winner, was the 6/1 clear favorite in the Kentucky Derby betting closely followed by Graham Motion’s Irish War Cry, the Holy Bull and Wood Memorial victor at 8/1. Classic Empire was on offer at 10/1 with the U.S. friendly offshore online sportsbooks.
Classic Empire’s Arkansas Derby win has provoked renewed confidence. He is now the joint favorite with Always Dreaming in the Kentucky Derby odds at 6/1. His supporters will have to hope that Casse can produce a happy and healthy horse for the most important start of his career.