HOT SPRINGS, AR – John Oxley’s Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male Classic Empire is scheduled to arrive Wednesday at Oaklawn to run in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby, the country’s final major Kentucky Derby prep. The colt, who was based this winter and spring in Florida, will be flown to Arkansas via H. E. “Tex” Sutton’s famed equine transportation company.
“We’re coming with Pletcher,” trainer Mark Casse said, referring to Malagacy, trainer Todd Pletcher’s Arkansas Derby entrant. The two Florida horses will be flown to Little Rock, AR, then vanned 57 miles southwest to Oaklawn.
A son of Pioneerof the Nile, Classic Empire was a unanimous choice for champion 2-year-old male last year after winning 4 of 5 starts, highlighted by the Grade 1, $500,000 Breeders’ Futurity on October 8 at Keeneland and the Grade 1, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on November 5 at Santa Anita. In his only start this year, Classic Empire finished third in the Grade 2, $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes on February 4 at Gulfstream Park.
Malagacy is unbeaten in three career starts, including the Grade 2, $900,000 Rebel Stakes on March 18, the final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby.
The Arkansas Derby offers 170 points (100-40-20-10) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the May 6 Kentucky Derby. The Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters, with points earned in designated races used to determine starting preference if the race oversubscribes. Malagacy ranks 12th with 50 points (all earned in the Rebel). Classic Empire is 21st with 32 points.
Post positions for the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby will be drawn Wednesday at 12:30 p.m.
Rockin Rudy Looks to Add to O’Neill’s Kentucky Derby Arsenal
A week after shocking the racing world in a major Kentucky Derby prep race, trainer Doug O’Neill will try to do it again in the Arkansas Derby with the lightly-raced Rockin Rudy.
O’Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam won the Grade 2, $1 million Blue Grass Stakes (G2) Saturday at Keeneland with Irap, who broke his maiden at odds of 31-1. The same connections will be represented in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby by the speedy Rockin Rudy, a son of champion Midshipman, who will be making just his fourth career start, his first around two turns.
“It’s not every day to go from 6 1/2 to 9 furlongs, but it’s possible, and we’re going to give it a roll,” O’Neill said.
Rockin Rudy began his career with a front-running 11 1/2-length victory at 5 1/2 furlongs on August 5 at Del Mar for trainer John Brocklebank. After debuting for an $80,000 claiming price, Rockin Rudy was purchased privately late last year by Reddam, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2012 with I’ll Have Another and again last year with Nyquist – both trained by O’Neill.
“He’s a horse that won very impressively, and there was word on the street he was for sale, so we looked into him and then didn’t get a deal done,” O’Neill said. “Then, as it turned out, he was turned out for a little body soreness and immaturity stuff.”
Brocklebank, O’Neill said, called later in the year and was ready to part with the more mature gray colt.
Rockin Rudy has finished second in both of his 2017 starts, each run at 6 1/2 furlongs on Santa Anita’s hillside turf course. After holding the early lead in each race, Rockin Rudy was beaten by 1 3/4 lengths in the $75,000 Baffle Stakes on February 20 and by a head in a first-level allowance/optional claimer March 24.
“One of the things I enjoy about training is letting horses train along good and let them put their feet where they want to put them, and we put good air into them,” O’Neill said. “I really think, even though 6 1/2 seems like a far cry from 1 1/8 miles, it was really a hard-run race, especially a horse with speed. You’re burning gate-to-wire.”
Rockin Rudy has raced with blinkers throughout his career, but O’Neill said that he will remove the equipment for the Arkansas Derby because he wants to harness some of the colt’s natural early speed.
“With the blinkers on, it’s all focused on gate-to-wire, so he needs to chill out a little bit,” O’Neill said. “Blinkers off does it.”
Irap won the Blue Grass after removing his blinkers.
Rockin Rudy will be the Southern California-based O’Neill’s third Arkansas Derby starter, following Harvard Avenue (fourth behind Smarty Jones in 2004) and Jealous Profit (sixth behind Lawyer Ron in 2006).
Rockin Rudy was bred in Iowa by Allen Poindexter, also the breeder and owner of multiple Oaklawn stakes winner Chanel’s Legacy. He was to be flown Tuesday to Arkansas.
“He’s a neat individual,” O’Neill said. “I really think he’s a got chance to run a bang-up race, which obviously he would have to, to be competitive there. But we’re excited and eager to deal with those.”