While I searched for potential excuses for Classic Empire’s disappointing third-place finish at 2-to-5 in the Holy Bull Stakes my former Thoroughbred Times colleague Mike Curry (now of America’s Best Racing) offered hope:
“Even the great ones occasionally toss in a clunker; remember Afleet Alex’s Rebel?”
Indeed, that was a clunker, and although there are some differences with Classic Empire, there’s enough there to give us hope that an early three-year-old can turn things around from a clunker and be a major player in the classics. Afleet Alex went on to win the Arkansas Derby and finish third in the Kentucky Derby before ending his career with consecutive wins in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
On the positive side, I’m consoled that Afleet Alex threw in his clunker only 7 weeks before his excellent run in the Kentucky Derby behind longshots Giacomo and Closing Argument, and many still think Afleet Alex was best that day. Classic Empire’s connections have 13 weeks and two more starts to figure him out.
On the negative side, from a winning-the-Kentucky-Derby perspective, Classic Empire’s third place finish—8 ¾ lengths behind Irish War Cry—is historically bad .
The last six Kentucky Derby winners all won their three-year-old debuts, and no eventual Kentucky Derby winner has been beaten by more than 2 lengths in his three-year-old debut since Funny Cide lost the 2003 Holy Bull by 6 ½ lengths to Offlee Wild, and you have to go back to Real Quiet to find a Kentucky Derby winner who lost his three-year-old debut by more than 9 lengths (he was last of 8, beaten 22 ½ lengths at 11-to-10 in the Golden Gate Derby)
Those Funny Cide and Real Quiet nuggets give us hope, though, because both were coming off notable two-year-old performances: Funny Cide was undefeated and had earned a triple digit Brisnet.com Speed Rating, and Real Quiet had just won the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity. Classic Empire’s 108 Speed Rating is still tops among three-year-olds, and his previous race was a win in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Other recent dubious debuts include War Emblem, Charismatic, and Real Quiet, Sea Hero, Strike the Gold, Unbridled, Alysheba, Spend a Buck, and Gato Del Sol, though obviously none of those horses were champions at two.
Of note, though, is that all those horses had at least three “preps” for the Kentucky Derby, which is a departure from the current norm. One more prep might not be enough time to turn around Classic Empire, but surely two is—especially in the capable hands of Casse Racing.