HOT SPRINGS, AR – John Oxley’s Classic Empire is scheduled to be the sixth Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male to race in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on April 15, the highlight of the closing-day card.
Trainer Mark Casse opted to reroute Classic Empire to the Arkansas Derby – Oaklawn’s final major prep for the May 6 Kentucky Derby – after the colt worked 5 furlongs from the gate in :59.30 over a fast track Tuesday morning at Winding Oaks Farm near Ocala, FL.
Classic Empire has had a rocky 2017, with his training and racing schedule interrupted by a foot abscess and back issue, reportedly refusing to breeze twice, and a third-place finish in his only start, the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes on February 4 at Gulfstream Park.
“It’s well documented – we’ve had some bumps in the road,” Casse said Tuesday afternoon. “But, the good news is, it doesn’t matter. As I said, it’s like a baseball game. Doesn’t matter how many runs you score in the early innings, it’s how many you score in the end.”
Classic Empire had been ticketed for the Grade 2, $1 million Blue Grass Stakes on April 8 at Keeneland, but Casse said that the additional week will allow him to get one more major work into the son of Pioneerof the Nile, a unanimous choice as the country’s champion 2-year-old male, in advance of the Arkansas Derby.
Classic Empire, under regular rider Julien Leparoux, breezed in company Tuesday with Airoforce, a 4-year-old multiple graded stakes winner.
“I thought he worked extremely well,” Casse said. “That was the good news. The bad news was, we kind of really felt like he could use another strong work. And, given the timing of the Blue Grass, we weren’t going to be able to do that.”
After “much discussion” with his son/assistant, Norman, and Oxley, Casse said, “You guys got the vote,” referring to Oaklawn.
“The Arkansas Derby has been in our mind a little bit for a while,” Casse said.
Casse stated that the plan is to breeze Classic Empire again next week and head to Churchill Downs before vanning to Oaklawn “three or four days” before the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby. He particularly wants to school Classic Empire in Oaklawn’s indoor paddock.
Classic Empire won 4 of 5 starts last year, highlighted by the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity on October 8 at Keeneland and the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on November 5 at Santa Anita.
Oxley, who also campaigned 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, purchased Classic Empire for $475,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
Since the Eclipse Awards debuted in 1971, the only 2-year-old male champions to run at Oaklawn are Fly So Free in 1992, Favorite Trick in 1998, Answer Lively in 1999, Lookin At Lucky in 2010, and American Pharoah in 2015.
Favorite Trick (third), Answer Lively (elevated to fourth following Valhol’s disqualification), and American Pharoah (first) ran in the Arkansas Derby. American Pharoah, also a son of Pioneerof the Nile, went on to sweep the Triple Crown.
Locally-based horses pointing for the Arkansas Derby include Untrapped, Petrov, Silver Dust, and Lookin At Lee, who finished third, fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 18. The Rebel is the final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby.
Untrapped and Lookin At Lee worked half-miles in :51.40 and :52, respectively, over a good track Monday morning for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Lookin At Lee ran second and fourth, respectively, behind Classic Empire in the Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The Asmussen-trained Creator won last year’s Arkansas Derby before capturing the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of racing’s Triple Crown.
Co-owner/trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs said Wednesday morning that four-time defending Oaklawn riding champion Ricardo Santana, Jr., will ride Petrov in the Arkansas Derby. Previously ridden by New York-based Jose Ortiz, the colt ran second in both the Smarty Jones Stakes on January 16 and the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on February 20.