A “nearly” horse throughout his career, Rockemperor is a bridesmaid no more after breaking through at last in Saturday’s $500,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) at Belmont Park. His winless stakes record explains his 15.60-1 price as a Chad Brown trainee. Lightly-raced stablemate Serve the King likewise had a question to answer at this level, and accordingly went off at 14.80-1, to round out an $89.25 Brown exacta (for $1).
In hindsight, the key stat for Rockemperor was that Brown boasts a 32% strike rate in the blinkers-off category. He also switched to a different bit. The equipment changes, plus picking up a new rider in Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, helped the five-year-old to a new career high.
It almost did not happen, though. Connections only made a late decision to pitch Rockemperor into the Joe Hirsch when his intended allowance did not go.
“I have to give credit to (co-owner) Sol Kumin,” Brown said. “He was the first one to text me and say, ‘Shouldn’t we think about the Joe Hirsch.’ Why not? He was doing really good and I’ve been really impressed with the horse in the morning. He’s always a good work horse.”
Fourth to Gufo, Japan, and Cross Border in the Sword Dancer (G1) on Aug. 28 at Saratoga, Rockemperor reversed form with all three in the Joe Hirsch. The son of Holy Roman Emperor relaxed kindly near the back of the pack, trailed only by Gufo, before unleashing in the stretch.
As expected, two-time champion Channel Maker went forward to set the pace through deliberate fractions of :24.51, :49.41, 1:14.75, and 1:38.62 on the firm Widener course. Arklow, who beat Channel Maker here in 2019 to prevent a three-peat, was eager to attend and grabbed a brief lead on the final turn.
By that point, 1.85-1 favorite Gufo was circling the field to strike the front, in a move reminiscent of the Sword Dancer. Fans of Japan had a similar, if less pleasant, sense of déjà vu as he was again outmoved by Gufo and playing catch-up. Unlike the Spa, however, Japan failed to fire, and Gufo was unable to impose his authority for long.
Rockemperor, who angled outside to follow Gufo into the stretch, was traveling with ominous ease upon straightening. Blowing past the favorite, Rockemperor kicked two lengths clear and polished off 1 1/2 miles in 2:25.61.
“The only problem with him is in the past he’s been keen and never finished and is always giving a hard time to the jockey,” Castellano said.
“I’ve never rode the horse before. That was my first time I got on him, but I watched all the replays and how other jockeys rode him, and I think you have to have a lot of patience and a lot of confidence with him because if you move a little bit, he grabs the bit.
“I think my key today was to switch off and let him relax the first part and hopefully he’d give it back to me in the last part, and that’s exactly what he did.”
Brown was delighted that Rockemperor clicked with Castellano, despite being further back than expected.
“I thought he would be closer. I thought he could be relatively close, but not pulling. When it was a little bit crowded at the start, he found himself behind. I was quite worried because of his late one-paced nature that if he’s around those other horses like Gufo – who seem to kick a little harder than him – that he’d be in trouble. But this horse really responded today and Javier really fit him perfectly.”
Serve the King rallied well to take second, and Brown believed that he could have been a lot closer with a more straightforward trip. Gufo was a surprisingly one-paced third, another 1 1/2 lengths adrift. Channel Maker edged old rival Arklow for fourth, and Japan beat Cross Border home.
Owned by Madaket Stables, Michael Dubb, Wonder Stables, Michael E. Kisber, and Michael J. Caruso, Rockemperor rewarded his faithful with $33.20 and enhanced his record to 20-4-5-6, $914,409. The bay began his career in France, where he missed by a neck in his stakes debut in the 2019 Prix La Force (G3). That set the tone for the next two years.
A late-running third in the Belmont Derby (G1) in his stateside bow, Rockemperor went on to finish a close second in the 2020 Charles Whittingham (G2) (only to be demoted to third) and Manhattan (G1). He also placed in last year’s Muniz Memorial Classic (G2) and the pandemic-delayed Old Forester Turf Classic (G1) on Kentucky Derby Day. His campaign concluded with a fifth in the Joe Hirsch.
Rockemperor continued in the same vein in 2021. After a comeback third to stablemate Tribhuvan in the May 1 Fort Marcy (G2), he added blinkers for the June 5 Manhattan and wound up a belated fifth. A drop into allowance company gave him a confidence-boosting win here June 26. But Rockemperor was back to his old habit when runner-up in the July 31 Bowling Green (G2). He appeared to run in snatches en route to his Sword Dancer fourth, a frustrating performance that led Brown to experiment with a new bit.
“We put a different bit in his mouth for a little more control,” Brown said. “He got a little rank on us lately. For a horse that was always lazy the first half of his career, I couldn’t really get him to kick like he showed in his works. He was one paced. I put blinkers on him to get him motivated and warm him up in the post parade – everything you do to try and put a horse more in the game. It came to a boiling point in the last race because he overcompensated and was way out of control with Irad (Ortiz) and bothered Tribhuvan (his fifth-place stablemate) in the race.
“I’m so proud of the horse,” Brown added. “He’s been bridesmaid so many times and had a brutal defeat to Instilled Regard in the Manhattan last year. He has moved to the top of the list of one of the most deserving horses in our barn to win a Grade 1. He finally got it done.”
Bred by Haras du Mezeray in Ireland, Rockemperor is out of the stakes-placed Muhtathir mare Motivation, tracing to Broodmare of the Year Best in Show.
Among his near maternal relatives is multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Yagli, who was runner-up in the 1998 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). Rockemperor is now in position to go for that title at Del Mar.
Brown was not going to commit to the Breeders’ Cup just yet.
“Both horses – you’d have to look at it. We’ll see how the figures come back, but I’m not going to make any decisions right now. Serve the King ran second, and to be fair he had a lot of trouble in the stretch. He looked like he would’ve had a chance to win as well. They would have been very close at the wire if he’d had a better trip.”