December 5, 2022

Kentucky Derby Report April 19: Classic Empire concludes prep season with comeback win

Classic Empire revived his Kentucky Derby pulse in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), returning from a 70-day layoff to post a half-length decision at Oaklawn Park. He wasn’t flashy and the Mark Casse-trained colt must continue to move forward over the three-week interim, but the 2-year-old champ did enough to reestablish himself as the Kentucky Derby favorite.

He entered 2017 as the horse to beat but nothing went according to plan for Classic Empire, who was scheduled to receive three preps before the first Saturday in May. It became a two-race plan due to a foot abscess, which wasn’t discovered until after a well-beaten third as the 1-2 favorite in the Holy Bull (G2) in early February.

The son of Pioneerof the Nile needed time off to recover but after recording his first work back on March 12, Classic Empire refused to breeze at Palm Meadows eight days later. His Kentucky Derby hopes appeared in serious jeopardy at that point.

Casse sent his pupil to Winding Oaks Farm, a training facility in Ocala, Florida and the change in scenery worked as Classic Empire logged four workouts over a 17-day period (March 22-April 8), including a pair of 5-furlong drills from the gate. He made it back for the final Kentucky Derby prep, leaving the Arkansas Derby starting gate as the 9-5 choice among 12 runners.

Classic Empire bobbled slightly at the start and was in tight between rivals before being squeezed back by Julien Leparoux, who had his mount under a snug hold through the first turn. The bay colt continued to race a few lengths off the pace in traffic along the backstretch and held his positioning through most of the far turn.

Leparoux started to get busy nearing the completion of the bend and when he angled wide into the stretch, Classic Empire began to make gradual headway. He loomed large in midstretch and grinded out the narrow win, getting up late to overhaul the front-running Conquest Mo Money.

He left plenty to be desired, drifting in and out during the latter stages and switching back to the wrong lead just before striking the front, and registered a disappointing 96 BRIS Speed rating. I don’t like to see Kentucky Derby hopefuls fail to match their 2-year-old numbers and Classic Empire hasn’t come close to the 108 he received winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November.

But after getting little-to-nothing out of his first start this year, Classic Empire figured to be a short horse in the Arkansas Derby. He needed the race to be 100% on Derby Day and, at least theoretically, is now primed for his best at Churchill Downs.

However, a discernible air of uncertainty surrounds Classic Empire, who is being asked a lot on a short turnaround after being all-out in Hot Springs, Arkansas. He may have lost too much time earlier in the season to be ready for his best at 1 ¼ miles on May 6.

I’m inclined to take a more optimistic view – Classic Empire remains a very talented colt and the competition lacks a stand out — but the prospect of taking a short price isn’t appealing given the challenges facing Classic Empire.

Conquest Mo Money’s connections had the chance to nominate the Uncle Mo colt to the Triple Crown for $6,000 after a pair of victories in the $100,000 Mine That Bird Derby and $100,000 Riley Allison but didn’t. And they’re not going to spend $200,000 to supplement him to Kentucky Derby, opting to pay a reduced rate to join the Triple Crown in the May 20 Preakness at Pimlico.

After belatedly passing horses in Southwest (G3) and Rebel (G2), Lookin at Lee finally made an impact with an eye-catching move in the final furlong, weaving in and out for running room as he fell 1 ½ lengths short on the wire in third. The Steve Asmussen-trained late runner is a candidate for further improvement, with increasing BRIS Speed ratings and century-topping Late Pace numbers in the last two outings, and is one to consider for the bottom of the exotics at long odds. He needs one defection to make the field from the 21st spot on the points list.

Sonneteer was rolling late on the far outside in a fourth-place effort and the maiden has turned things around for Keith Desormeaux, recording back-to-back commendable performances versus stakes foes at Oaklawn after showing little in his first eight starts. He’s another deep-closing type who could have more to offer if he gets the right set-up in the Kentucky Derby, but Sonneteer will need a couple of defections to get inside the top 20.

Malagacy was off as the 2-1 second choice and drew even with Conquest Mo Money at the head of the stretch. The Todd Pletcher trainee battled gamely until the final sixteenth of a mile, weakening to fifth after a rough journey from post 12, and has the points to make the Kentucky Derby field. But Malagacy’s fastest races have come at one turn.

Kentucky Derby Top 20 ( has free Ultimate Past Performances for the 2017 Kentucky Derby based upon points order)

  1. ALWAYS DREAMING: Recorded the most visually impressive performance of prep season and netted a big fig (102 BRIS Speed) romping by 5-lengths in Florida Derby
  2. CLASSIC EMPIRE: Appeared a race away winning much-needed tightener in Arkansas Derby, eligible to deliver his best on May 6
  3. IRISH WAR CRY: Convincing winner of Wood Memorial and Holy Bull merits serious respect
  4. HENCE: Burst upon scene with smashing Sunland Derby win, enormously flattered by vanquished foes Irap and Conquest Mo Money
  5. PRACTICAL JOKE: Blue Grass runner-up appears to be sitting on a big race for Brown, only question is 1 ¼-mile distance
  6. GUNNEVERA: BRIS Speed and Late Pace numbers illustrate the improvement he’s displayed this year, Fountain of Youth victor will try to make his presence felt in latter stages
  7. MCCRAKEN: Churchill specialist candidate to move forward off Blue Grass third but isn’t among the fastest based upon Speed ratings
  8. GIRVIN: Has raced exclusively at Fair Grounds and stepping up to face deeper competition but colt brings winning attitude with 3-for-3 record on main track
  9. LOOKIN AT LEE: Making steady progress for Asmussen, registering century-topping Late Pace figures in last two starts; Arkansas Derby third-placer on points bubble
  10. J BOYS ECHO: Gotham winner experienced troubled trip in Blue Grass, late runner looking to rebound on Derby Day
  11. TAPWRIT: Blue Grass clunker dampened his prospects but memories of the move he launched in the Tampa Bay Derby remain
  12. SONNETEER: Maiden established himself as a late-running exotics contender in Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes, needs a couple of defections to make field
  13. PATCH: Louisiana Derby runner-up could be a good one for Pletcher but unraced juvenile faces tall task given his inexperience
  14. BATTLE OF MIDWAY: Held gamely for second after dueling on hot pace in Santa Anita Derby, improving colt will be a front-end presence
  15. BATTALION RUNNER: Wood runner-up also eligible to add to pace, not sure he’ll be ready for extra ground
  16. STATE OF HONOR: Hard-trying colt may be forwardly-placed but distance concerns exist following runner-up finishes in Florida Derby and Tampa Bay Derby
  17. THUNDER SNOW: Exits a pair of impressive performances overseas on dirt but Dubai shippers have never fared well in Kentucky Derby; connections still considering English classics
  18. GORMLEY: Changed running style to capture slowest Santa Anita Derby in 60 years, don’t like his chances stretching out to 10 furlongs
  19. IRAP: Broke maiden upsetting Blue Grass but can’t see him duplicating performance at Churchill Downs
  20. FAST AND ACCURATE: Earned berth winning Spiral on Polytrack but must be supplemented for $200k, ran poorly in lone dirt attempt