Classic Empire Finds His Best Stride For Arkansas Derby Triumph

by | 04.15.2017 | 7:44pm
Classic Empire overcomes trouble to win the Arkansas Derby

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:

  • Sampan

    Congratulations to Classic Empire on a good effort overcoming previous difficulties.

    • Michael Shea

      Agree. Congratulations on overcoming an awful lot of difficulties in this race as well. Rough trip, had to go wide, yet still had enough to come on at the end. I am always impressed when a young horse can handle adversity.

      • smoof

        malagacy in only his 4th lifetime start was 5 wide on the first turn, 3 wide on the second turn, ran head to head on the lead from the half to mile and 16th, going 46.92 and 1:11, playing bumper cars the entire way down the stretch with conquest mo money, and CE beat him by less than 2 lengths.

        CE was all out to pass horses weaving like drunken sailors for the entire stretch run, and only passed conquest mo money right before the wire. color me not awestruck.

        the most impressive horse in the race was conquest mo money, setting the fractions the way he did on a contested lead all the way around, bouncing off malagacy the entire length of the stretch, and still coming home in 1:48.9 and only losing by a half length…and if they supplement him, he’ll go off at 15-1 or higher. probably higher.

        if they didn’t bottom him out, that’s your derby winner.

        no horse in the race had an easy trip. weirdly run first half.

        tbh i’m relieved malagacy lost and was off the board in doing so. hopefully pletcher decides now to keep him on the bench for the preakness.

        everyone will be snickering about malagacy but he ran the second best race tiday–when inexperienced speed is only caught just before the wire by two deep closers and the presumed best horse of his crop from way back…that 5th place is going to earn people who bet him next out a pretty penny, so long as pletcher doesn’t ruin him by forcing him to run back in 3 weeks (my concern isn’t the distance of the KY derby but his effort today and the short turn around)….man did he look just like his papa, never quit, just ran out of gas, they had to beat him.

        anywho, conquest mo money, that’s who you play on derby day assuming he trains well.

        • Michael Shea

          There was no slight toward Conquest Mo Money intended in my congratulations to Classic Empire. He ran the length of the race and held on better than the others, finishing ahead of all but one.That being said; I think you are underestimating the trip Classic Empire had and the added distance of the Derby, which I think would prove too much for Conquest Mo Money.

          • smoof

            apologies, didn’t mean to come off so strident.

            this was actually the first time i’ve seen conquest mo money race, wasn’t expecting him to be so strong.

            you’re right though–for me, i don’t see anything particularly onerous about classic empire’s trip vis a vis the other top finishers.

            todd shrump and paul loduca was screaming about afterwards and i figured i just missed it. but i’ve watched the replay a half dozen times and i just don’t see his trip any more troubled than anyone else’s.

            being leaned on for the entire length of the stretch, esp. when the jock on the horse leaning on you is whipping his horse right handed right in front of your eye, is hell on a horse physically and psychologically.

            i meant no disrespect to classic empire. the way things are going this year, fast and accurate at 50-1 is probably going to be the one wearing the roses.

          • Figless

            I concur, in fact CE had a PERFECT trip, no clue what people are talking about with a rough trip.

          • Ruffian31

            He didn’t have a perfect trip at all. Fanned out wide on the far turn, in tight around the first turn and packed in down the backstretch. He had to run yards farther than CMM who had a way better trip. The more impressive horse in the field was Lookin At Lee who was flying fastest of all after weaving in and out of traffic. Should be one to watch on Derby Day.

          • Figless

            CMM ran a shorter distance, but he ran into the teeth of a fast pace and held on stubbornly. CE rated perfectly off a fast pace, moved when asked and got up in time. While there was some traffic that happens in two turn big field races and was nothing like the horror trip described in the above article. He has a clean trip, albeit a tad wide. No “trouble” that I could see.

          • Ruffian31

            Guess this can be a moot point since CMM’s connections are passing on the Derby.

          • chasingfiringline

            CMM was very impressive. I agree with your posts. Sonateer malagacy & LAL were impressive to the wire. KD is going to be tough to handicap. CE sure can rate nicely & should be the favorite now, he certainly earned that respect. My heart horses are Gunnevera, CE & IWC. I’ll prob place a win bet on those three.

          • Lehane

            Agree with you on the whipping. Just yesterday in Melbourne, the stewards upheld a protest by the second placegetter. The jockey on the winner was smashing his horse with the whip in his right hand and shifting out into the path of his rival on his right. The trainer of the rival, who won the 2015 Melbourne Cup, argued that his horse’s efforts to continue going forward were marred not only by the interference but also by the whip use by the offending jockey. Stewards reversed the 1st and 2nd placings. An excellent decision.

          • Carla Parrillo

            I there was a way to eliminate The whip, and never allow this piece of equipment in a race or on the track. I would never be soon enough. I love the way some refer to it as a “crop” I guess to let it sound less threatening.
            I may be imagining this but I have observed horses going at a decent pace during the last length of the race . Maybe a slim chance to get to the front, the jockey started with the whip and the horse pulled back, or retreated in speed. You had think the horse responded to the whip by just giving up trying.
            Again a piece of ornate antique equipment that need to be replaced with something better and non-threatening to the horses.

        • Michael Shea

          Thanks. This is the only horse racing forum I have found where the fans show the slightest respect for each other’s opinions. I love the passion we have for the sport and our stars. As fans, we invest a lot more than money and it shows in these comments. Each one of us has found “THE horse” and we pour our hearts and souls into it. I think we can all agree that this year’s prep races have led up to one exciting Kentucky Derby.

      • McGov

        This horse oozes so much class and talent. It’s a shame he has these anxieties. He even appeared to be weaving in the gate. What he overcame to win the race both prior and during is nothing short of incredible. So much trouble and yet….big smile for the camera still ;)
        I hope he comes out good. Hats off to these connections….the horse looked up against it for many reasons but still pulled it off. Obviously, fit ENOUGH…at least against that group lol.

        • Michael Shea

          My father used to say, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.” I have remembered that saying through Classic Empire’s spring of 2017.

      • Carla Parrillo

        It’s good to remember he is young.!!!

  • Scott Little

    Congratulations to Miguel Hernandez and Conquest Mo Money! I met Miguel several years ago when he rode at Turf Paradise. His children worked for me at my restaurant. Great family. I trust that Mo will be supplemented to the Derby and Miguel will take the Chip Woolley route to Kentucky. Hopefully it will be the same result! Way to go Miguel!!

    • Judy Fraizer

      These guys and this little $8500. Horse are proof that dreams can come true. I started believing after Sunland. That race and the Arkansas Derby put Conquest Mo Money right in the thick of it. He will run and I will have him in my exacta again.
      Love it when good guys win.

      • Brian Taylor

        Some have theorized that since Sunland Park is at about 10000ft.elevation, horses who race and train at it end up developing lungs that use Oxegyn much more efficiently.

        • Judy Fraizer

          Makes perfect sense. I hope CMM will like the much different track he will find at Churchill Downs. Seems like horses either love it or hate it. He’s run really well on two bullring tracks; next up, the big kahuna.

  • nucky thompson

    Great run by Conquest Mo Money and ride by the unheralded Jorge Carreno. A shame that the horse is not nominated for the Kentucky Derby. I doubt if his connections have the $200k needed to supplement him. I see new ownership coming in now for a Derby run , maybe with Bob Baffert as the trainer.

    • smoof

      agree. he ran the best race today, he just isn’t the horse people were rooting for.

      if he’s in the derby he goes off no lower than 15-1, and he’s your winner.

      • Ruffian31

        Not anymore, he’s out of the Derby and pointing to the Preakness instead.

    • Piper Spitz

      I’m sure the connections have the 200k. They won it today! Now, is it a good idea to spend it?? I think a partnership is coming.

    • Horse trainer

      Nucky–check again with Mo Money connections they have the jack to ante up the supplement-and I highly doubt there will be a change in trainer-Hernandez is bought and paid for-as far as Carreno’s ride -if he doesn’t throw the horse’s away Classic Empire is denied-he needs to be the change

      • Horse trainer

        Throw his head away

        • Bobbie Irish

          His head is already one the way “away”. Thought Classic Empire ran very oddly. Kind of like he was drunk. Very weird race. Ended up well, but not sure the horse knew where the hell he was. Might as well put a hood over his head….

          • Lehane

            Might as well put a hood over your head.
            You don’t know what was going on with Classic Empire.

          • Carla Parrillo

            He is getting used to a new jockey. First race he wasn’t rushed. He knew when and why to pull up at take a good position. He did a great job. This is so far the first comment questioning his running method from a Saturday.
            I think he reacted like any athlete that was away from the game for some time. they need a few moves to get your rythem back. C E did exactly thesame thing..
            He observed, he focused, then he put his talent up there. IT WORKED!!!

            YOU are entitled to your opinion, of course, I’m just replying !

          • Andy in the desert

            “New Jockey”???
            Err….that would be a no. Julien has been on him since the start, save when he bolted with Irad in the Hopeful at Saratoga.

          • Carla Parrillo

            I thought one of my reports a reply was posted that he had a new jockey. My error. I didn’t see any communication problems Saturday.
            Maybe I read his showed alot of patience giving C E fresh start he got Saturday.
            I would note the last thing CE needs is changes in what he is familiar with.
            I didn’t think he ran Iman odd way. That was what I was replying to prior to you reply.
            I agree that if C E knows this Jockey they should not change him.
            In fact a few commenters thought Leperaux didn’t do a great job. I think he and C E worked very well together.

          • Andy in the desert

            No problem…it happens. Julien isn’t my favorite jock by a long shot, but like Darrell Royal said, “You gotta dance with who brung you”!

    • David Juffet

      Another War Emblem? Lol

    • Judy Fraizer

      They have money. Hernandez will not be replaced. If they did that I think it would really leave a bitter taste in the mouths of many people. Some farm might supplement him for breeding rights after racing, but did all the hard work these guys have done? Just say it ain’t so!

  • Ida Lee

    If I said it once, blah blah blah….Classic was not the Juvenile Champ for nothing….he’s had a rough time of it but like the Champ he is, he’s come back fighting all the way for this most impressive win….It’s just so right that the young Champ be in the Derby ….it’s the way it should be…(of course, Irish War Cry will be the Derby winner and Classic a rapidly closing 2nd as my second favorite)

    • Carla Parrillo

      I’m so happy for Classic Empire. Just like you wished worked hard and eat a few obstacles to get here.
      At least now Three of my first picks are back.. I love McCraken but I think the competition between IWC AND. C E is going to give the Derby a race to remember.
      There style, and stamina see to be so similar. The are equally intelligen thiscshows in how they handle the track.
      I hope the best for C E. that his health stays up there.
      But again they should make the Kentucky Derby a very exciting race.
      How did the funny guy Star Dust do today?

  • lastromantibune

    Conquest Mo Moneys race effort showed the Sunland Derby as a key race. not the first horse to run next out with a great effort. fast time for this years crop of slow plodders. problem with Classic Empire is what version of him shows up .I mean he is much better than any of the other 3yo’s. he is a quirky / squirrely type…a real beauty. AND talented enough to be another triple crown winner. that said it’s going to be a great derby betting race

  • Delrene

    Congratulations to Classic Empire and an incredible run by Conquest Mo Money. Hope they are all healthy and come home safe. Quite a comeback. An exciting Kentucky Derby awaits.

  • We’re watching

    Rarely does a horse win the KY Derby on the lead.
    Too bad the Oaklawn website doesn’t allow the average fan a chance to watch it live for free.

  • redeemed626

    How common is it for two horses on the lead, like Malagacy and Conquest MM, to play bumper cars down the stretch? I felt like I was watching Dale Earnhardt, Sr. on horseback.

    I’m pleased that Classic Empire bounced back, but It will be interesting to see if Malagacy chooses to go to Lexington or, more likely, eyes the Preakness.

    Conquest Mo Money ran a very solid race.

    • Lehane

      Very happy for Classic Empire and Conquest MM was brilliant but I have to say that I didn’t like the way this race was run. Too fast a pace was set earlier in the race and two horses tailing were struggling.

  • J


    • Ruffian31

      A flash? Seriously? He’s had two losses in his career. I’d hardly call that a flash.

  • David Worley

    Congrats to the Oxley’s and team on their champion being back on route to the derby. Given that he was checked twice in the race (which cost him about 4 lengths compared with CMM) and he is not at 100%, this was a really nice prep race.

  • Audrey Gulla

    What a finish! I thought Classic Empire was trapped & was going to lose. When I heard his name & that he was on the move, I looked & still thought no way could he catch the frontrunner……Greyt ride by Leparoux (by the way it was Jose Ortiz Jr who CE threw in the Hopeful ). Congratulations to Classic Empire & his whole team!…..Well done!

    • Jbumi

      Agreed! Just a quick note – it was Jose’s brother, Irad, who got thrown in the Hopeful. I hope CE is able to keep his head screwed on – he’s sure something when he shows up!!

      • Audrey Gulla

        You’re absolutely right about Irad. I was thinking of him & wrote Jose instead. Hard to think of one & not the other. For two such very young men they’re climbing the ranks at lightening speed! :) like you I hope CE can stay focused now & get on with fulfilling all his potential!

        • Jbumi

          The daily NY half hour racing show (now defunct) was on tv when I first retired. Got to see the new, up & coming apprentice jockeys – first Rosie then Irad then Jose! You’re right – they’ve really come along quickly!

          For the next 3 weeks, I hope all the entrants stay healthy. May they all have good, safe trips in the Derby so we can all watch a great race & scream our heads off for our favorites!!

  • Lefty_Orioles_Fan

    CE has a fighting chance for the Derby
    1:48 and change not too shabby

    Always Dreaming, Girvin, and now CE

    Also, keep a good eye on Hence, the Sunland Derby winner.

    • Ruffian31

      His time was yards faster than any other 9f Derby prep this year. What a strange year though. Wouldn’t be surprised to see 3 different TC race winners again.

      • Lefty_Orioles_Fan

        Wouldn’t be surprised to see 3 different TC race winners again

        A lot of probable truth in this.

        We’ll see.

        • Michael Shea

          I know that some of the prep races’ statistics would indicate a mediocre crop but I think we have seen some 3 year olds who are still developing and that could make for a pretty interesting Triple Crown series. I think Sonneteer, Reaching the World, Epicharis and Silver Dust, just to name a few, could be major players in the Preakness and Belmont.

  • Honniest

    congrat to the Champs connections

  • Honniest

    Mo Money the Mo’s are runners

    • Ruffian31

      Early on they appear to be. They cooled out real quick last year after the TC.

  • Figless

    Didnt see the rest of the races, was there a speed/rail bias as usual on Ark Derby day?

  • Bryan Langlois

    Does anyone know why Oaklawn does not load 2 at a time like they do at other tracks? Just curious as I noticed that during the load.

  • chasingfiringline

    I’ve watched this race multiple times🐎. The superfecta finishers certainly are prepped for the KD now with close quarters all the way around the track. Decent times too. So glad the champ is back🏇It would be cool if another 2 yr old champion wins the derby. Would love to see pioneerofthe Nile win another triple crown.

  • Tinky

    It’s a mystery to me why anyone thinks that Stauffer is a good race caller.

    • Bryan Langlois

      He did appear to get a little tongue tied at the end there didn’t he.

    • Judy Fraizer

      But, he’s such a nice guy.

  • Richard C

    The Rise and Fall and Return of the Classic Empire.

  • paulferschke

    Is it just me? This race had the BIG race feel to it. Would not surprise me a bit if all three of the classic winners come out of it think about how it played out every point of call was action filled the field was bunched up with traffic problems throughout, the stretch run had no less then tree lead changes with Conquest Mo Money putting in one of grittiest performances I have seen in a while then Classic Empire grinds out a gutsy win. fun one to watch looking forward to what should be a exciting classic run that is anyone’s guess who will come out of it victorious

  • Brian Taylor

    Don’t overlook the gutsy performance by Lookin at Lee.He altered course 3 or 4 times in the stretch and still kept coming.Many dead closers would have spit the bit out ,but LaL kept coming.Had Contreras swung out from behind Classic Empire instead of in,he might have been right there at the finish.Put him in your Tris and Supers in KY Dy (at least)

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