John Oxley's juvenile champion Classic Empire put in a performance that may well put him back atop this year's 3-year-old class, traveling very wide around the far turn to win the G1 Arkansas Derby. The well-proportioned bay son of Pioneerof the Nile has had a troubled spring season, but a change in scenery seems to have put his mind back on the racing game as he ran down a very game Conquest Mo Money to win by about a half-length on the wire. Trained by Mark Casse, Classic Empire and Julien Leparoux covered nine furlongs over Oaklawn's fast main track 1:48.93.
“I was pretty nervous,” Casse admitted. “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.”
The win earns Classic Empire 100 points toward the Kentucky Derby, securing his place in the starting gates on the first Saturday in May. He will be joined in that gate by the runner-up, Conquest Mo Money, whose 40 points bring him to a new total of 60 overall. Third-place finisher Lookin at Lee, who came absolutely flying between rivals late, has a new total of 32 points, which puts him right on the cusp of a chance at the Kentucky Derby. In fourth was Sonneteer, whose new total of 30 points also places him on the outside looking in.
Check out the updated Leaderboard here: 20170415 Road to the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard
Classic Empire broke well from his inside post position (2), but approaching the first turn Leparoux was forced to take up sharply when Rockin Rudy and Petrov sandwiched him between them. Malagacy, impressive winner of the Rebel Stakes, was hung terribly wide from his outside post (12), but kept on in a quest for solid position around the first turn. Under the wire for the first time, there were five horses stretched across the track in the leading role: Rockin Rudy on the rail, then Petrov, Grandpa's Dream, Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy. Classic Empire had dropped back to settle in just behind those leaders, with Untrapped and One Dreamy Dude to his outside.
Into the first turn, Grandpa's Dream and Conquest Mo Money established themselves the quickest of the frontrunners, with Petrov pulled back to third. Grandpa's Dream kept his head in front for the first quarter in a speedy 22.75 seconds, but Conquest Mo Money decided he'd rather be in front on the outside, taking the field of 12 sophomores through a half in :46.92. Malgacy bettered his position, taking fourth just two paths off the rail in the backstretch, with Rockin Rudy and Classic Empire in fifth and sixth, respectively.
At the six-furlong pole, Untrapped moved up along the outside into fourth, and Rockin Rudy moved off the rail in mid-pack, allowing Silver Dust into that position and forcing Classic Empire three-wide. At this point there were seven horses spread across the front three lengths of the field, and it was extraordinarily tight quarters for all but the two at the very front.
Silver Dust kept pulling at jockey Corey Lanerie, dragging him into third on the inside at the five-furlong pole as Grandpa's Dream drifted out a bit. Malagacy was still right there in fourth, and Untrapped was tugging at Mike Smith in fifth on the far outside. Conquest Mo Money was still going strong up front, and would shortly mark the six-furlong split in 1:11.16. Also still in the mix were Petrov, Rockin Rudy and Classic Empire, trapped between horses while now a good four paths off the rail.
Rounding into the far turn, jockey Jorge Carreno began working on Conquest Mo Money, and Malgacy soon ranged up into contention on his outside under Javier Castellano. Untrapped took over third as Grandpa's Dream dropped out of it, leaving Classic Empire finally with room to maneuver outside of Petrov and Silver Dust.
Malgacy put his head in front as they approached the stretch run, but a terrifically game Conquest Mo Money wrenched that lead back at the head of the lane, determined to keep his neck in front. Untrapped was in the three-path at that stage, forcing Classic Empire to go four-wide if he wanted clear running room as he turned for home. Petrov was still grinding away on the inside, but the late closers were beginning to make their presence felt from the rear of the field.
Early in the stretch, Conquest Mo Money drifted a bit wide, herding Malgacy a bit to the outside of the track, until Carreno changed his stick to his right hand. Malagacy returned the favor with a not-so-subtle bump several strides later, and Conquest Mo Money bumped him back a bit harder, though neither was every truly knocked off-stride.
Meanwhile, Untrapped was unable to make up any ground late on the leaders, and Leparoux took nearly a sixteenth of a mile to find Classic Empire's top gear. Once Classic Empire hit his best stride however, he started closing the gap on Conquest Mo Money. Malagacy dropped back suddenly, put away by Conquest Mo Money, but that colt had caught sight of his new challenger and was ramping up to press on with his advantage.
All the momentum, however, belonged to Classic Empire on this day, and the champion colt bested Conquest Mo Money by a half-length on the wire.
“He wasn't 100% 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 (Kentucky), so I knew I had to finish in top 4. I think he is a special horse.”
Lookin at Lee had come from well off the pace, shifting back-and-forth between rivals all the way down the stretch, and was beaten just 1 1/2 lengths in third.
“I swinged to the outside and I didn't want to lose momentum so I didn't drop inside,” said Lookin at Lee's jockey Luis Contreras. “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.”
After hanging on for so much of the race, Malgacy was just nosed out by the maiden Sonneteer on the wire for fourth. Malgacy, of course, still has his 50 points from the Rebel which keep him with a place in the Kentucky Derby starting gate if his connections choose to go in that direction.
“I felt a little disappointed about the post, they didn't give me a chance to load the horse,” said jockey Javier Castellano, aboard Malgacy. “As soon as he loaded they broke out of the gate. I think he lost a little of momentum there. I had to use a little bit to get him into position. He gave me a good run, he is a fighter, he fought all the way to the end. I mean I am not disappointed at all, he gave me great effort and I am so proud of the horse. You don't see too many horses fighting all the way to the end and he did it. Unfortunately the 11 horse he kind of drifted a little bit he turned it up a little bit and (Malagacy) had to fight back and lost a little bit of momentum. Very fortunate for the outside horse, he went by clear. My horse had to fight the battle all the way to the end and I think it cost him in the race a little bit.”
Next across the line were Untrapped in sixth, then Silver Dust, Rowdy the Warrior, Petrov, One Dreamy Dude, Grandpa's Dream, and Rockin Rudy.
Classic Empire was bred in Kentucky by Steven and Brandi Nicholson, and purchased at the Keeneland September Yearling sale for $475,000. The juvenile champion won his first two starts in quick succession, but in his first try in Grade 1 company, he whirled and dropped his rider shortly after the start in Saratoga's Hopeful. Casse and his assistant, son Norman, worked out the kinks and brought him back to win the G1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, then went on to watch their champion fend off Not This Time to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita.
Kicking off 2017 in the Feb. 4 Holy Bull at Gulfstream, Classic Empire was uncharacteristically worked up before the race, and finished a disappointing third behind Irish War Cry and Gunnevera. Casse soon discovered a foot abscess in the colt, which may have contributed later to a back problem which discouraged Classic Empire from breezing in March. Another failed breeze led the Casse team to send him back to their training center in Ocala, a place with which he was very familiar and had always trained well.
“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).”
It seems the change of scenery has worked its magic, as Classic Empire overcame a good amount of trouble to win the Arkansas Derby off just three solid workouts in the past month. Overall, the colt boasts a record of five wins from seven starts, with earnings of over $2 million. He will ship to Churchill Downs in Louisville on Monday.
“We ran into a few issues, and thanks to the genius of Mark Casse — brilliant trainer — we found the solution,” said owner John Oxley. “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.”
Conquest Mo Money is not nominated to the Triple Crown, though his total of 60 points has earned him a place in the starting gate if owners Tom and Sandra McKenna pony up the $200,000 late fee.
“I have been that horse and that was the best he ever felt, I think he is going to get better and better,” said jockey Jorge Carreno of Conquest Mo Money. “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.”
Watch the race replay here:
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