Ky. Derby pedigrees: Angel of Empire flies under the radar

Ky. Derby pedigrees: Angel of Empire flies under the radar
Photo: Ben Breland / Eclipse Sportswire

In the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, Angel of Empire made a powerful, sustained drive around Oaklawn's far turn and winged past rivals like they were tied to the rail.

Flavian Pratt waved the crop a few times down the lane, and Angel of Empire opened up to win by 4 1/2 lengths over last-out maiden winner King Russell, with Grade 3 hero Reincarnate a half-length back in third. Angel of Empire traveled 1 1/8 miles in 1:49.68 and got his final furlong in a swift 12:12 seconds.

The Brad Cox trainee has finished out of the money only once in his six-race career, an allowance race over the Kentucky Downs turf. He's compiled $1,069,375 in earnings and owns 155 Kentucky Derby qualifying points.

Angel of Empire (Classic Empire - Armony's Angel, by To Honor and Serve) graduated at first asking last August at Horseshoe Indianapolis. After a poor showing on the Kentucky Downs lawn, he returned to Horseshoe and captured an allowance. Classic Empire's son kicked off 2023 with a clear second-place finish in the listed Smarty Jones before a 13-1, one-length victory in the Risen Star (G2).

Forgotten Land Investment and Black Diamond Equine bred the colt, who was foaled in Pennsylvania. He didn't meet his $32,000 reserve as a Keeneland November weanling, but Albaugh Family Stables picked him up for $70,000 at the following year's Keeneland September sale.


Angel of Empire followed in his sire Classic Empire's (Pioneerof the Nile - Sambuca Classica, by Cat Thief) hoof steps with an Arkansas Derby victory.

Classic Empire won four of five starts as a 2-year-old, including a thrilling neck victory in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Juvenile over Not This Time. His only loss was when he took a right turn coming out of the gate of the Hopeful (G1), dumping his rider.

The 2016 Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old returned to finish third in the following year's Holy Bull (G2) before capturing the Arkansas Derby by a half-length as the favorite. Then, Classic Empire returned to finish fourth after a rough start in the Kentucky Derby. In his career finale, Classic Empire just missed the Preakness victory by a head. He retired with a 9: 5-1-1 record and earned $2,520,220.

Classic Empire suffered a stubborn hoof abscess and retired to Ashford Stud. He was the fourth-leading first-crop sire in a class that contained Arrogate, Gun Runner and Practical Joke. He was seventh on the second-crop sire list by earnings and is currently third on the third-crop sire list.

Classic Empire has 83 winners from 138 starters, with eight stakes winners. Angel of Empire is his first Grade 1 winner. None of Classic Empire's black-type earners have attempted 1 1/4 miles. However, since he is by the stamina-oriented Pioneerof the Nile out of a daughter of Breeders' Cup Classic hero Cat Thief, the chance of his getting a winner at classic distances is pretty good.

Female family

Angel of Empire's extended family includes multiple Grade 2 hero Forbidden Kingdom (American Pharoah), multiple graded winner Sarah Louise (Malibu Moon), and the venerable old fan favorite and multiple graded winner Mister Marti Gras, who earned over a million dollars in 58 starts.

Additionally, Angel of Empire and Disarm share a common ancestress, the blue hen White Jasmine who is Angel of Empire's fourth and Disarm's fifth dam.   

Angel of Empire Pedigree

Angel of Empire's dam Armony's Angel (To Honor and Serve - Seeinsbelieven, by Carson City) was winless in eight career starts but placed three times between six furlongs and 1 1/8 miles. Her half-brother Conquest Big E (Tapit) was more successful, winning the Gulfstream Park Mile (G2) over Kentucky Derby hero Always Dreaming and placing in two other stakes at a mile.

Angel of Empire is a first foal. His 2-year-old half-brother Third City (Collected) brought $23,000 at last year's Fasig-Tipton select yearling sale. He has a full yearling brother named Raconteur.

Angel of Empire's damsire To Honor and Serve (Bernardini - Pilfer, by Deputy Minister) is a multiple Grade 1 winner between a mile and 1 1/8 miles and failed to hit the board in two attempts at 1 1/4 miles in the 2011 and 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic.

The stallion produced six graded/listed winners in North America, led by Alabama Stakes (G1) heroine Eskimo Kisses and multiple graded miler/middle distance winner Mr. Freeze. To Honor and Serve is a young broodmare sire with only 27 starters and 13 winners.

Kentucky Derby contender or pretender?

Arkansas Derby winners and runners-up have done well in Kentucky.

Since the inception of the Arkansas Derby in 1952, three colts have pulled off the Arkansas Derby/Kentucky Derby double: Sunny's Halo (1983, Smarty Jones (2004) and American Pharoah (2015).

Seven other winners, including Creator (2016), Curlin (2007) and Afleet Alex (2005), won other Triple Crown legs.

Underneath finishers also have used the Arkansas Derby as a steppingstone to the winner's circle in Kentucky, including Country House (2019, on DQ of Maximum Security), Super Saver (2010), Grindstone (1996) and Lil E Tee (1992).

So what does that mean for Angel of Empire? His pedigree is strong for 1 1/8 miles, hints that 1 1/4 miles is within his range, and his conformation and a swift final furlong in the Arkansas Derby backs this up.

Angel of Empire has a smooth gait without extra motion, such as high knee action or paddling, and switches leads correctly. Angel of Empire is comfortable racing mid-pack and between horses. Many horses will back off when between horses, but not Angel of Empire. He's shown the mindset of moving forward, which will help in Kentucky.

With Forte and Practical Move taking all of the early Kentucky Derby buzz, Angel of Empire is flying under the radar and just might land in the winner's circle.


Meet Laurie Ross

 HRN Pedigree Analyst 


 Published Author

 Pedigree Research/Consultation/Sales 

 ThoroFan Board Member

 Member – NTWAB

Through hands-on work at barns, I learned valuable lessons about Thoroughbred conformation, gait, and temperament and later worked withThoroughbred rescue/re-train organizations. I have committed my passion for horses to the intensive study of pedigree and breeding theory for the last 20 years. 

I support clients with all aspects of pedigree/breeding analysis, research, sales, catalogue review, and recommendations on claims or private sales. Clients include national leading owners, racing/breeding syndicates, the little guy with one mare, and everyone in between. 10-20% of all proceeds are donated to Thoroughbred rescue & retraining groups. Check out my website, Iron Maidens Thoroughbreds, and the IMTBreds blog.

I welcome your questions regarding pedigree, handicapping, and breeding. If you would like me to cover a specific topic, please contact me. 

Twitter: @IMTBreds
Facebook: IMTBreds
LinkedIn: Laurie Ross

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