If you thought Classic Empire would not be able to return to top form in time to be one of the main players heading into the 2017 Kentucky Derby, you might just want to rethink things. In no ways was Saturday's Grade 1 Arkansas Derby easy, but in the end, the champ came through with flying colors, scoring a popular and hard-earned half-length victory in front of a large crowd at Oaklawn Park. Trained by Mark Casse and owned by John Oxley, the 2016 Juvenile Champion was made the 9-5 favorite in the field of 12, despite a turbulent winter which saw him finish a disappointing third in the Holy Bull Stakes, as well as suffering from a few physical issues, and even refusing to train after the issues. Seeming to have turned it around of late, and training well the last few weeks, bettors had faith that the real Classic Empire would re-emerge in Arkansas. The son of Pioneerof The Nile broke well from his inside post under rider Julien Leparoux, but was squeezed back in between horses the first time past the grandstand. Up front, a pair of longshots, Conquest Mo Money and Grandpa's Dream wrestled the top two spots away from Petrov on the first turn. Those two led the large field down the backstretch through early splits of :22.75 and :46.92.
A number of horses were chasing in just behind them, the closest being the Rebel winner, Malagacy. Classic Empire was not much farther behind, but continued to have little room, while in-between horses. Leparoux did his best to keep his mount relaxed, despite the congestion.
As Grandpa's Dream was the first to fade, Malagacy, the second choice, made his move, and stuck his nose just in front of Conquest Mo Money coming out of the turn. That one fought back, though, and led into the stretch. Classic Empire finally had clear sailing by that time, and commenced his rally from the outside.
Coming in from Sunland Park and 17-1, Conquest Mo Money proved to be a game competitor as he got the best of Malagacy, but the champ was now moving well and gaining on the leader. Classic Empire collared him in the last fifty yards and surged for the wire as the Arkansas Derby winner.
“He wasn’t 100% today, so I was expecting him to be a little tired," remarked Leparoux. "He is a nice horse. He did it today. I wanted to drive a nice race for him. Be in the Derby (Kentucky), so I knew I had to finish in top 4. I think he is a special horse.”
Lookin at Lee, who had anything but a straight trip down the stretch, and Sonneteer, who was widest of all, were the two rallying best late, but could not seriously threaten the top two.
The final time for the nine furlongs over the fast track at Oaklawn was a very solid 1:48.93. An inquiry involving bumping between Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy was ruled incidental. Looking at Lee got up for third, over Sonneteer, who in turn just edged a tiring Malagacy for fourth-place. The top five finishers were only separated by 2 1/4-lengths at the wire.
With the victory, Classic Empire raised his lifetime record to 7-5-0-1, with earnings of $2,120,220. The Arkansas Derby win was his first since winning another million-dollar race, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, two starts back. “He just has so much ability, said a happy winning trainer." Classic Empire also added his third Grade 1 victory.
"I knew if we could get him here that he’d be tough. He’s been a challenge, but the last month and a half have been good — a lot of chapters to the book I’m writing (laughs). About the eighth pole everybody around me started looking, because I was doing some yelling. I wasn’t sure he was going to get there. I was afraid that maybe late he’d get tired. But it was exciting. I’ll never forget it,” added Casse.
As the slight betting choice over Malagacy, Classic Empire returned $5.80, $4.40, and $3.80 across the board. The exacta over the game Conquest Mo Money was good for $100.20, while the 2-11-6, completed by Lookin at Lee, paid a healthy $774.40.
With 170 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby up for grabs today at Oaklawn, Classic Empire shot up into the #2 spot. His 128 total points trail only the Louisiana Derby winner, Girvin. Meanwhile, Conquest Mo Money took home 40 points for his placing, but is not nominated to the Triple Crown. Lookin At Lee's third-place finish was enough to raise his total to 32, and the fourth for Sonneteer now gives the maiden 30 points. Those new totals move them up to 22nd and 23rd respectively, giving each a realistic chance to make it into the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.