Classic Empire tested the Oaklawn surface for the first time Thursday morning, jogging a mile and galloping a mile, according to assistant trainer Norm Casse. He trained about 7:30 a.m. On Thursday, some 30 minutes after the track opened. He schooled in the paddock before Thursday's first race.
Classic Empire was flown from Ocala to Arkansas Wednesday and arrived at the Davona Dale barn at approximately 4:30 p.m.
“I think probably a month, a month and a half ago when he was continuing some of his antics we kind of had thrown our hands up and been like, ‘Well, what are we supposed to do?’’ said assistant trainer Norm Casse. “Last-ditch effort, we send him back to Ocala where it all started for him and said if he trains there, good, if not we’ll take a step back and will wait until the summertime. So, he’s earned his right here. We feel like we’re kind of playing on house money.”
Classic Empire was installed the 8-5 program favorite for the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby. He is scheduled to break from post 2 under regular rider Julien Leparoux.
“We really like the post position,” Casse said. “I feel like this racetrack suits him. He’s got speed. His best races have been over really tight surfaces similar to this one. I think he’ll appreciate this racetrack.”
LOOKIN AT LEE
Lookin at Lee galloped and schooled in the infield saddling area.
Lookin at Lee has a new rider in Luis Contreras on Saturday. Ricardo Santana, Jr. rode Rebel sixth-place finisher Lookin At Lee in his five prior starts, including a second in Keeneland’s Breeders’ Futurity and a fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Santana was Asmussen’s main rider much of the year and in years past, including at Oaklawn, but the trainer severed their business relationship weeks ago. Contreras has replaced Santana as Asmussen’s first-call rider at Oaklawn.
“Luis has done an excellent job here, riding the course really well,” Asmussen said. “We’ll try to take advantage of that.”
Santana, who has maintained his lead in the jockey standings while riding for more outside outfits, picked up the mount on Petrov, the Rebel fourth-place finisher.
After arriving from South Florida Wednesday afternoon, Todd Pletcher's Malagacy had a busy morning. He went out for a gallop under assistant trainer Adele Bellinger, he was sent to the starting gate during his morning training session, and he schooled in the indoor paddock and on the infield grass at noon.
“He’s such a relaxed gallop; he doesn’t just drag you,” Bellinger said. “Some horses, two days out, they know they’re going to run and they drag you around there. They’re a little rude and obnoxious. That’s not how he is.
“He was better behaved in the gate this time. Last time when we brought him for the Rebel, he was so rude, throwing his head. And the gate crew kind of got after him a little bit and he kind of realized he wasn’t the boss. This time, he walked right in. They loaded horses on either side of him. And he didn’t love it, but he dealt with it well. I guess that would be where I’d say he’s maturing, and hopefully he continues to.”
ONE DREAMY DUDE
One Dreamy Dude, a 50-1 longshot, has not only never run in a stakes race, his best finish in six maiden races was losing by a nose four races ago. He also has a trio of fourth-place finishes.
The son of First Dude is out of the mare Dreamy Dream, hence the name. But owner Mike Waters of Seattle said he also named the colt after his Hall of Fame trainer, Jack Van Berg.
“If we win this race, it would just be a dream come true,” Waters said. “It would be 30 years since Alysheba won (the Kentucky Derby) with Jack Van Berg. I know we’re a long-shot, and big odds. But you know what? It’s horse racing, and anything can happen.
“When we bought this horse in Ocala in June, we only paid $25,000,” Waters said. “But Jack likes to wink at me when he likes a horse. I never got more than three winks every out of Jack, and Jack gave me four winks on this horse. I bought this horse, we brought him back to Churchill Downs to train, and Jack told me he hasn’t had a horse like this since Alysheba. Said he’s got a reach from here to Timbuktu, a stride you just can’t believe. He’s still just growing into himself. He’s such a big horse, he’s growing every day. We’re pushing the envelope with him. But if his best race shows up, you never know.”
Asked when the decision was made to run in the Arkansas Derby, Waters said with a laugh, “I think Jack made the decision the day we bought him. The conversation really started occurring about two weeks ago. We were in that maiden special weight race three or four weeks ago, and we had a little issue with some mucous in the lungs. The jock said he had a ton of horse at the corner, and really thought he was going to win the race. He had a little mucous, and things happen in racing. He started training like a monster. Jack said, ‘Hey, he’s training too good not to give him a chance.’”
Waters was asked if Sonneteer finishing second as a maiden at 112-1 in the Rebel and Irap becoming the first previously-winless horse to capture Keeneland’s Blue Grass had any bearing on the decision to roll the dice.
“That might have had a little factor,” said Waters, who owns a commercial flooring company in Seattle, his clients including the NFL Seahawks. “Maybe the Derby trail isn’t what it was the last couple of years, and these maidens are just getting bigger and stronger. They’re so young, and coming into their own. There’s not an American Pharoah, not a Smarty Jones. Anything can happen. Why not us?”
Waters’ Muddy Waters Stables was 10 for 35 heading into Thursday’s Oaklawn card, putting him in second place, albeit 11 wins behind leader Danny Caldwell. He is also a partner in Chief of Staff, who runs in Saturday’s Count Fleet Sprint Handicap.
Petrov is the only horse to run in the 2017 Smarty Jones, Southwest and Rebel and be entered in the Arkansas Derby.
ROWDY THE WARRIOR
One of the surprise Arkansas Derby entrants was Rowdy the Warrior, who finished third, beaten 5 1/4 lengths, in a first-level allowance/optional claimer March 18 for trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel. He was re-routed to the Arkansas Derby, Von Hemel said, after another entry-level allowance race didn’t fill.
“Looked to run him farther than a mile, and not many opportunities,” Von Hemel said.
Rowdy the Warrior ran in Oaklawn’s first two major Kentucky Derby preps, finishing third in the Smarty Jones Stakes and ninth in the Southwest Stakes.
If Rebel Stakes longshot runner-up Sonneteer was in another stable, a rumor might have swept through the barn area when Calumet Farm’s nearly black colt did not go to the track Thursday at Oaklawn Park. But, Sonneteer is trained by Keith Desormeaux, so in this instance the unusual is the norm. As opposed to most operations, where horses train two days before a race barring something such as bad weather, Desormeaux generally doesn’t take his horses to the track on Thursdays and Sundays. It’s a method that worked swimmingly with 2016 Preakness winner Exaggerator and 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red.
“It’s so funny. When we first started going to some of the big races, when we wouldn’t go to the track, all of the press would flock to you like, ‘What’s wrong?’” said Julie Clark, Desormeaux’s assistant trainer and significant other who is the point person when the barn sends a horse on the road. “Like you’re hiding something. And I’m like, ‘It’s just a Thursday.’ Thursdays and Sundays.”
In fact, the situation becomes weird if a horse does train on Thursday, she acknowledge.
“Say if we’d shipped in Wednesday, he’d have gone to the track Thursday,’” Clark said. “But that would have messed up Keith’s brain, for sure. He likes to give them a nice, relaxing day.
“I love when we ship on Tuesdays. Because we go to the track Wednesday, and get all this energy out of them — they’re usually high as a kite. Thursday is when the trip seems to hit them. They’re so stimulated the first day getting here, then they’re all sleepy and just race all day. Then you get one day to train before the race.”
Calumet Farm’s homebred Sonneteer has three seconds, two thirds and a fourth in seven maiden races, along with a fourth place in the California Derby in his sixth start. After he was a rallying second in a Feb. 25 maiden race at Santa Anita, Desormeaux shipped him to Oaklawn, where at 112-1 odds son of Midnight Lute won a three-horse photo for second, with Malagacy the two-length winner.
Sonneteer schooled in the indoor paddock and infield grass, where the jockeys will get on their mounts, with other festival stakes horses at noon Thursday. Clark said Sonneteer will stand in the gate Friday morning as part of his training session.
Untrappped galloped and schooled in the infield saddling area.
Mike Smith will be aboard Untrapped for the first time. Ricardo Santana, Jr. rode Untrapped in four of his five career starts, with Irad Ortiz aboard for the colt’s third-place finish in the Rebel.
Asmussen called Smith to seek his services last Saturday.
“Mike has always been a great talent, tremendous,” said Asmussen. The trainer said he has known the 51-year-old Smith “since he galloped horses for Bob Arnett in New Mexico.”
Smith is committed to Louisiana Derby winner Girvin for the Kentucky Derby. Asmussen’s immediate concern is trying to win a a grade I race before then, and then you never know what will happen. “There are so many things that will change for all of us,” he said.
Edited Oaklawn release