Poster Boy for Crazy Prep Season Rights Ship
In a topsy-turvy year of races leading to the Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire was the poster child. Third as the heavy favorite in the Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4, he set the tone for what was to become a tumultuous Road to the Kentucky Derby.
As fate and the bettors would have it, Classic Empire was again the favorite in the Arkansas Derby -- and he won after two months of turmoil. Ridden by Julien Leparoux, Classic Empire got up in the final strides to get past the always prominent Conquest Mo Money.
After the gates were sprung, Petrov narrowly led the field into the first turn closely accompanied by extreme longshot Grandpa's Dream and Conquest Mo Money. Malagacy, the post-time second choice, was less than two lengths back after breaking from the far outside post 12.
Coming out of the first bend, Grandpa's Dream was in first with Conquest Mo Money, Malagacy and Petrov in closest pursuit. As the field passed the next pole, Conquest Mo Money led after a first half-mile run in a sprightly 46.92.
Under heavy pressure from Malagacy, Conquest Mo Money remained in charge of the field with six furlongs run in 1:11.16. Grandpa's Dream was still hanging around, but it was not to be for long, and Untrapped made an unsustained run at the pace. Meanwhile, Classic Empire, who had been positioned in sixth or seventh place but only a couple of lengths back of the leader, encountered traffic in the turn and was taken three and four wide.
Into the stretch Conqest Mo Money and Malagacy ran one-two while heads apart and continued to engage in a battle to the wire that included some bumping. Suddenly Classic Empire appeared to their outside in third position with a fulong left to run. He outfinished them to win by a half-length. Conquest Mo Money was second. Lookin at Lee, who was 10th by five lengths after the first half-mile, got up late for third, beaten a length. Sonneteer, 11th in the early going, also closed well to finish fourth, another half-length back and a neck in front of Malagacy in fifth.
The 1 1/8-mile race was timed in 1:48.93.
Assistant trainer Norm Casse was exuberant about the result.
Derby points went 100 to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The net result after the race: Classic Empire at 132 and in second place on the leaderboard behind Girvin's 150; Conquest Mo Money with 60 points; Lookin at Lee with 32 points and at number 22 on the Derby points leaderboard; and Sonneteer with 30 and sitting at number 23.
Conquest Mo Money's ownership has to supplement at a cost of $200,000 to make it into the Kentucky Derby.
Malagacy still has 50 points and remains in the top 20. Untrapped finished sixth and is unchanged with 34 points, at the moment putting him on the outside looking in at number 21 on the leaderboard.
Silver Dust ran seventh, followed by Rowdy the Warrior, Petrov, One Dreamy Dude, Grandpa's Dream and Rockin Rudy. The Equibase chart doesn't mention it, but the race was followed by a stewards' inquiry about the bumping between Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy. The order of finish remained intact.
Not in recent history has there been such a convoluted road to the Kentucky Derby. After Classic Empire's debacle in the Holy Bull, he was diagnosed with a foot abscess, then a sore back. Twice he simply refused to put in workouts. That led trainer Mark Casse to relocate him from Palm Meadows to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala. The team regrouped, and Classic Empire put in four workouts in a timely fashion.
Initially intent on entering last Saturday's Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, Casse decided the colt needed another week. All the decisions paid off in spades.
The son of Pioneerof the Nile is out Sambuca Classic, by Cat Thief. He was bred in Kentucky by Stephen and Brandi Nicholson and was sold to John Oxley for $475,000 at the Keeneland September 2015 Yearling Sale. The 2-year-old Champion and winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile has amassed earnings of $2,120,220, including $600,000 of today's $1 million purse. The Arkansas Derby was his fifth win in seven starts.
The 9-5 favorite at post time, Classic Empire went on to turn it all around and paid $5.80 to win, $4.40 to place and $3.80 to show.
Winning trainer Mark Casse: “He just has so much ability. 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). I was pretty nervous. We run a lot of places, but I was probably a little more nervous. I went and walked up and down inside, watched it on TV. 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.
“(Louisville is) home for him. We’ll get him back there and come up with a game plan. I think the toughest deal is over, getting to this point. Now he won’t have to do too much going into the Derby.
"That thought went through my head about the eighth pole. I said, ‘He’s running well. If he runs 1-2-3, that’s OK, second or third.’ But I never gave up. I was still wanting him to win, but that thought did go through my head.”
Winning Owner John Oxley: “I did (have confidence) late last year because we’d just won the Juvenile and were 2-year-old champion. So there was a lot of confidence there. But 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.
“I think people will probably stay with him. That makes it all the bigger challenge, because we sort of like to be behind the radar a little bit. But on the other hand, I’d rather win all the way into the Derby, and that’s the way we are right now.”
Winning Owner Debby Oxley: “Oh, my knees were about ready to give out. I was standing on those stairs, watching the race and was like, ‘Oh gosh, I hope I don’t fall over and take six people with me.’ No, I was really, really nervous. We all agreed — and I think Mark said it perfectly in an interview earlier this week — everything has been done that could be done that could be done. He was either going to go out and perform, or he wasn’t. It was out of our control, our hands.”
Winning jockey Julien Leparoux: “He wasn’t 100% today, so I was expecting him to be a little tired. He is a nice horse. He did it today. I wanted to drive a nice race for him. Be in the Derby, so I knew I had to finish in top four. I think he is a special horse.
“Much better (today than in the Holy Bull). He walked in the gate and relaxed. He took me to the race. Usually he is a little keen, and today he was, which is a good sign for him. In the Holy Bull he was just not himself, I was laying third, but I didn’t feel like I had too much horse at that time. So today I knew I was loaded. I just needed to get there.
“It was a tough winter, I am not going to lie. Come January we expected so much from him and after the Holy Bull he just went downhill from there. It was hard to see whenever we got off the wagon, but at the same time we were running out of time. Today was the last race we could get before the Derby, so it was very important for us to get in. Mark and his team did an awesome job, so the credit goes to them.
“He is a very professional animal. He was a little fresh today, pulling a little bit, but other than that he did very good.”
Jorge Carreno, aboard Conquest Mo Money: “I have been on that horse and that was the best he ever felt, I think he is going to get better and better. All I can say is he is a warrior, a fighter, he doesn’t give up. He gave me all he got to the end, same as he did in the Sunland Derby. This is a special horse, the best one I have ever been on since I started riding. And I fully believe he will keep getting better. I am just going to keep working and hope to get to the Kentucky Derby. I thought I had it.”
Trainer Miguel Hernandez, second with Conquest Mo Money: “Oh, my God, it's so exciting. I want to say 100 yards from the wire, I said, 'I got it, I got it, I got it.' It was exciting. Right by the three-quarter pole, I thought he was going to quit. He came back. I'm happy with the way he ran.”
Trainer Steve Asmussen, third with Lookin At Lee: “He’s a tremendous horse. He’s just been so fun. He just shows up. He’s sixth 70 yards from the wire. I mean, he never quits trying, and you’d love to see him rewarded for that effort. The good news is we’re stabled at Churchill. He will fly to Louisville on Monday.”
On Untrapped, sixth as the third choice: “Disappointed with the end result. Had a little bit of a wide trip and didn’t stay on.”
Jockey Luis Contreras, third on Lookin At Lee: “Well yeah he got up perfectly so nice and comfortable. I swinged to the outside and I didn’t want to lose momentum so I didn’t drop inside. I thought I was going to get to the inside but he was kind of dead. I pulled outside and he started to run again, I don’t know. It was a perfect race, he tried so hard.”
Julie Clark, assistant trainer to Keith Desormeaux, fourth with Sonneteer: “Still a maiden, but he's knocking on the door. He keeps improving and keeps showing a little bit more. Kent was ultra-impressed. He hasn't been on him for a race or two, and he was super impressed with him.”
Javier Castellano, fifth on beaten favorite on Malagacy: “I felt a little disappointed about the post, they didn’t give me a chance to load the horse. As soon as he loaded they broke out of the gate. I think he lost a little of momentum there. I had to use a little bit to get him into position. He gave me a good run, he is a fighter, he fought all the way to the end. I mean I am not disappointed at all, he gave me great effort and I am so proud of the horse. You don’t see too many horses fighting all the way to the end, and he did it. Unfortunately the 11 horse (Conquest Mo Money) he kind of drifted a little bit he turned it up a little bit and (Malagacy) had to fight back and lost a little bit of momentum. Very fortunate for the outside horse, he went by clear. My horse had to fight the battle all the way to the end, and I think it cost him in the race a little bit.”