John Oxley’s champion Classic Empire’s Road to the Roses hasn’t been as smooth as his connections planned when they accepted his Eclipse Award as 2016’s top 2-year-old in early January. The bay colt’s sophomore season has been plagued with an uncharacteristic poor performance, a foot abscesses, a sore back and, on at least two occasions, his flat-out refusal to train, all of which had trainer Mark Casse and jockey Julien Leparoux scratching their heads. And with just three weeks left to the Kentucky Derby (GI) the only thing they all knew for certain was that in order for Classic Empire to make the gate under the Twin Spires he might need what could only be described as an act of God.
So, after a winter full of the unexpected and twist and turns that tried everyone’s patience, Classic Empire finally found the divine intervention necessary to put himself back at the top of his crop and again the one to beat in Louisville in two weeks with his impressive trouble-filled half-length score in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (GI) at Oaklawn Park.
Despite his rough patch, Classic Empire was the public’s slight near 2-1 favorite in the field of 12 and returned $5.80, $4.40 and $3.80. Early pacesetter Conquest Mo Money held on gamely to second at the wire at odds of more than 17-1 and paid $12 and $7.80 to cap off the $50.10 exacta. Late charging Lookin at Lee, who also had a ton of trouble throughout, crossed the finish line a length behind the runner-up and was worth $5.40 at 12-1. The $.50 trifecta was good for $193.60.
Classic Empire didn’t make it easy for Leparoux in Saturday’s nine-furlong test. The duo encountered nothing but trouble nearly all the way, beginning with checking slightly past the wire the first time and racing just behind what can only be described as a traffic jam all the way around the first turn and up the backstretch as Conquest Mo Money, Grandpa’s Dream and Petrov battled on the lead through the first three-quarters of a mile in splits of :22.75, :46.92 and 1:11.16.
Leparoux asked Classic Empire for more run as the field began to round the far bend, but after encountering nothing but a wall of rivals past the quarter pole, he was forced to swing wide out into the lane for clear running room to the wire.
As he stormed down the lane under a vigorous ride from his regular pilot, Classic Empire encountered some resistance from a couple of tiring rivals a furlong out, including Conquest Mo Money, who passed the eighth pole in 1:36.43, and soon after took the lead. In deep stretch, the winner leaned in slightly and switched to his left lead before pulling away to prevail, safely holding off Conquest Mo Money and the late-charging Lookin at Lee and stopping the clock in 1:48.93 over a fast track.
The maiden Sonneteer, Malagacy, Untrapped, Silver Dust, Rowdy the Warrior, Petrov, One Dreamy Dude, Grandpa’s Dream and Rockin’ Rudy rounded out the order of finish.
“He wasn’t 100 percent today, so I was expecting him to be a little tired,” Leparoux said. “He is a nice horse. He did it today. I wanted to drive a nice race for him. Be in the Derby, so I knew I had to finish in top four. I think he is a special horse.
“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, so it was very important for us to get in. Mark and his team did an awesome job, so the credit goes to them.”
Classic Empire earned $600,000 for his third career grade 1 score to bring his total to $2,120,220 and his record stands at 7-5-0-1. He also won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI), Breeders Futurity (GI) and Bashford Manor Stakes (GIII) and was third in the Holy Bull Stakes (GIII) at Gulfstream Park earlier this year. Bred in Kentucky by Steve and Brandi Nicholson, he is out of the Cat Thief mare Sambuca Classica and was purchased for $475,000 as a Keeneland September yearling in 2015.
“He just has so much ability,” Casse said. “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). 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.”
Casse indicated Classic Empire will ship to Churchill Downs as soon as possible and providing he emerges from his most recent victory in good shape will begin final preparations for the first jewel of the Triple Crown in three weeks.
“That’s home for him,” Casse said. “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.”
Classic Empire has earned 132 points for the Kentucky Derby, putting him second behind Girvin’s 150 and safely in the gate for the 1 ¼-mile race. The cutoff point with three weeks to go is the 40 points Cloud Computing owns. Last year’s cutoff number was 40.