It’s been anything but a straightforward path to the Kentucky Derby (G1) for Classic Empire, but last year’s unanimous champion two-year-old colt appears to have turned the corner just in time for the April 15 Arkansas Derby (G1).
Since trainer Mark Casse moved him from Palm Meadows to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Florida, Classic Empire has been happier – and that’s translated into a trio of strong five-furlong moves putting him right back into Derby contention.
On Monday, Classic Empire motored in :59 3/5 from the gate in company and galloped out six furlongs in 1:12 1/5, according to Steve Haskin of the Blood-Horse. As reported by Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch, he teamed up with four-year-old Airoforce, a Grade 2 winner at two and runner-up in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1).
Thanks to the video shared by assistant trainer Norman Casse, you can watch Classic Empire match strides with Airoforce before clearing away with authority:
Jockey Julien Leparoux was aboard for the work, and his wife, Shea, tweeted:
— Shea Leparoux (@SheaLeparoux) April 3, 2017
Shea Leparoux summed it up well in another tweet: “Classic Empire getting his head in the game. Next up Arkansas Derby.”
Mark Casse was overjoyed by what he saw from the champion.
“It was spectacular,” the trainer told DRF’s Welsch. “I had chills for two minutes after the work. It’s the best he’s ever breezed.”
Classic Empire’s turnaround is welcome news after his rocky road. A dull third in the February 4 Holy Bull (G2) in his reappearance, the 1-2 favorite exited the Gulfstream Park race with a hoof abscess. Then, once ready to return to the worktab at Palm Meadows, he refused and showed signs of back discomfort. After responding quickly to treatment, a healthy Classic Empire got back to work March 12, only to balk again the following week at Palm Meadows.
Hence Casse had to put on his equine psychologist’s hat and decided that his talented pupil needed a change of scenery. The transfer to Ocala made all the difference to Classic Empire, who breezed five-eighths in 1:01.40 on March 22 and :59.30 from the gate on March 28.
With one more work on tap next week, Classic Empire will aim to regain his status as a leading Kentucky Derby threat in the Arkansas Derby. He’s likely to clash with Todd Pletcher’s dynamic duo of One Liner and Malagacy, both slated to return to Oaklawn Park after capturing the Southwest (G3) and Rebel (G2) respectively.