“He’s trained in them pretty much the whole time we’ve had him,” Cox said Wednesday. “We started him long. I didn’t want him to get too aggressive in the beginning to start his career running him long with the blinkers, so we didn’t run in them.”
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That was the mindset when Angel of Empire won his debut race going a mile in the slop in August at Horseshoe Indianapolis. The Classic Empire colt followed that with one allowance and two stakes victories, including the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. Then there was his big finish in the Kentucky Derby to come in third, only 1 1/2 lengths behind Mage, lifting his earnings to $1,369,375 for the Albaugh family who invested $75,000 to buy him.
Now the 7-2 third choice on the Belmont Stakes morning line, Angel of Empire is one of Cox’s three colts entered for Saturday’s last classic. Hit Show is 10-1, and Tapit Shoes is 20-1. Even though Angel of Empire is the only one getting the equipment change, Cox re-emphasized the point that he has been comfortable with blinkers for a long time.
“Throughout the winter or even before the Risen Star (G2 in February), we got to the point where we were breezing him in them,” Cox said. “He was training really well in them, but he’s also running well. I didn’t want to change a whole lot, and he’s obviously still run well.”
So what finally convinced Cox, after a career-high 104 Beyer Speed Figure in the Derby, according to Daily Racing Form, and after tying his best Brisnet Speed Rating of 101, that now was the time to race Angel of Empire in blinkers?
Cox chuckled as he said it was as much what as it was who, namely jockey Flavien Prat.
“Flavien came back after his last race and said, ‘You know, put the blinkers on this horse,’” Cox said. “You get your feedback from your riders. You don’t have to. Most of the time you don’t go with it. You just let it go in one ear and out the other.”
With or without blinkers, the Derby performance with 11 1/2 lengths of made-up ground suggested Angel of Empire might have gotten the job done had the race been a quarter-mile longer. For Cox, though, Prat’s suggestion turned on a light bulb that had been powered more by what they were seeing in morning works.
“In this instance, Flavien obviously breezed him with the blinkers on a time or two as well and really liked what he felt,” Cox said. “He obviously rode him in the Arkansas Derby, and he ran a great race in the Kentucky Derby, too. I just thought it might propel him forward a little bit.”
A deeper dive into the numbers underscored that last point. Being a deep closer, Angel of Empire concedes a lot at the start of his races. He was 6 3/4 lengths behind when he finished second Jan. 1 in the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn, 6 1/4 when he won the Risen Star and 4 3/4 in winning the Arkansas Derby. Last month at Churchill Downs, though, the gap after a quarter-mile was 11 lengths and 13 after a half-mile.
“I would have never thought he would have been that far off of it in the Kentucky Derby, just how well he was training,” Cox said. “But I also didn’t expect them to go 45 and change (the first half-mile). And I didn’t expect (stablemate) Verifying to be doing it.”
Cox did not expect that to happen again this weekend, and he was not alone in thinking the pace will be much saner in the Belmont.
“We’re probably not going to be 15, 16 lengths off of it,” he said.
The blinkers, though, might help Angel of Empire stay a little more in touch with the field before Prat tries to make a winning move, presumably by the second turn.
“I really don’t think they can be a negative, because he’s such a mild-mannered horse,” Cox said. “I don’t think he’s going to jump on it or that he’s going to be too aggressive. He trains in them. It’s not as if Saturday is going to be the first time he’s worn them. It’s not as if it’s a huge, huge change at all.”