Saturday, April 15, 2017

Fawn Leap-connected Classic Empire wins Ark. Derby, scratching doubts; may be favorite for Kentucky Derby

By Al Cross
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

Classic Empire eliminated doubts and re-established himself as a logical favorite for the May 6 Kentucky Derby by winning the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park this evening. He won by half a length over Conquest Mo Money after a bumpy trip and a long, strong stretch drive.

The champion of last year's 2-year-olds won $600,000 for John C. "Jack" Oxley, who owns Fawn Leap Farm just south of Midway. The son of Pioneer of the Nile has given Oxley and trainer Mark Casse impressive victories and $2.1 million in winnings, but has also been a problem child.

Last year, he threw a rider before coming back to win the Breeders Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old championship. His third-place finish in the Feb. 4 Holy Bull Stakes was blamed on a foot abscess, but as Casse resumed his training, the colt refused to work. Casse and Oxley moved him to another farm, where Casse said he worked well, but did not race him until today, passing up the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes.

Classic Empire went off as the 9-5 favorite, but Malagacy, a Todd Pletcher-trained colt, found favor with the Hot Springs crowd and had shorter odds until shortly before post time. Classic Empire broke from the No. 2 post position and Malagacy on the far outside at No. 13, in the only hole used in the auxiliary gate.

The field was tightly bunched until the turn for home, and jockey Julien Leparoux had to steer through tight, bumpy traffic. At the head of the stretch he turned six wide, and Classic Empire gained steadily on Malagacy and the other leaders, edging ahead shortly before the finish of the Grade I mile-and-an-eighth race. The time was 1:48.93.

Being lightly raced lately, Classic Empire went into the race with only 32 qualifying points for the Derby, but picked up 100 with the win. He paid bettors $5.80, $4.40 and $3.80. Conquest Mo Money paid $12 and $7.80. Lookin at Lee paid $5.40 for third.

Malagacy, winner of the 50-point Rebel Stakes, placed fourth a close fifth and added 10 points to his Derby total. He is trying to become the only horse since 1882 to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old.

With 132 points, Classic Empire has more points than any horse but Girvin, who has 150 after winning two Grade II races, the Louisiana Derby on April 1 and the Risen Star Stakes on Feb. 25. Now both head to Churchill Downs.

"We knew we had to finish in the top four" to reach the Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire jockey Julien Leparoux told TVG after the race. "He was not really 100 percent ready."

Casse told TVG that the horse was ready, but "He had to overcome a few things today, and he learned a lot. . . . I was questioning his fitness down the lane."

Earlier in the interview, Casse said, "I've always believed in him. I know he has a tremendous amount of ability," and is smart and kind. He added later, "He's like a teenage child. You love him sometimes, and sometimes you know you want to strangle him."

Oxley said after the race, "We ran into a few issues, and thanks to the genius of Mark Casse — brilliant trainer — we found the solution. We had Julien aboard; he stayed with us, of course. We found a rider named Martin [Rivera]. I think he was the wild card. The horse respected him, he trained so well with him and here we are."

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