Notes from Oaklawn Park
Updated with Classic Empire and Sonneteer
Classic Empire jogged a mile and galloped a mile during an uneventful training session shortly after the track opened at 7 a.m. At noon he schooled in the indoor paddock and on the infield grass, overseen by Norman Casse, son of trainer Mark Casse.
Mark Casse, Classic Empire’s trainer, won a record ninth Sovereign Award as Canada’s outstanding trainer and his sixth in a row on Thursday evening. He also is a finalist for America’s National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Casse’s $126,555,657 in career purse earnings rank No. 10 in North America. Every trainer above him is in the Hall of Fame except the all-time leader, Todd Pletcher ($335 million), who has not yet trained the 25 years required for eligibility.
Casse was Churchill Downs’ leading trainer in 1988 but not long afterward moved his main base to Canada. Several years ago, he re-established a major U.S. presence — with his career taking off to even greater heights, including training Eclipse Award champions Tepin and Classic Empire.
Casse says he’s not on the Hall of Fame ballot if not for the influence of John Oxley, owner of Classic Empire, and his son Norman, who oversees the stable’s Churchill Downs, Saratoga and Palm Meadows operations at various times of the year. Mark Casse said Norman prodded him to put a renewed emphasis on racing in the States.
“He’d say, ‘Dad, we’ve got to go back to Kentucky,’” Mark Casse said. “Of course, he’s a Kentucky boy, Louisville-born.” He said that move was further greased when politicians attempted to ravage the casino-assisted purse funding for Canadian horse racing.
Oxley, who won the 2001 Kentucky Derby with the John Ward-trained Monarchos, had cut way back on his racing operation when he became a Casse client during the same time frame. They had immediate success, and Oxley soon was back buying aggressively at the sales. Other major owners flocked to Casse, who quickly became a powerful force in the U.S. along with Canada.
“I was kind of going along very nicely in Toronto, doing my thing every year and was quite happy,” Casse said. “With Norman pushing, with Mr. Oxley behind us, it allowed us to focus more in the U.S. You are only as good as the players that you have. Mr. Oxley was the guy who let us go and buy those horses that we wanted. We’ve had a lot of luck for him. When they have that much faith in you, you want to accomplish even that much more. And he’s a true gentleman of the game as well. So it’s special, definitely special.
“We’ve really only been focusing on the U.S. in the last four or five years. Then boom, we have the Tepins and Catch A Glimpses, the Classic Empires. Everybody wakes up and says, ‘Hey, he’s doing pretty good.’ So I’ve become a 38-year overnight sensation.”
Whether he gets in the Hall of Fame this year or not, Casse said of being on the ballot, “It’s a huge honor just to be there. I went to the Hall of Fame with my dad when I was 8 or 9 years old at Saratoga. I told him then, ‘I’m going to be in the Hall of Fame some day, Dad.’ Since I was a little boy, horse racing has been my life, forever.”
Casse said his dad, the late Ocala horseman Norm Casse, had immeasurable influence throughout his career and that his wife, Tina, encouraged the highly successful move to Canada. Casse was inducted into Canada’s racing hall of fame last year, when he met the minimum age of 55.
“I wouldn’t be up for the (North America) Hall of Fame if it weren’t for my dad, my wife, Mr. Oxley or Norman,” he said. “If it wasn’t for my dad and Tina, I wouldn’t have been nearly as successful in Canada. Norman and Mr. Oxley helped us go to the forefront in the U.S.”
CONQUEST MO MONEY
Trained by Miguel Hernandez, Conquest Mo Money (15-1) is coming off a second-place finish, beaten 3 3/4 lengths in the Sunland Derby, the colt’s first loss in four career starts.
“I’m telling you, he’s something else,” Hernandez said outside the horse’s stall in the Davona Dale barn. “Look at him? He’s like, ‘whatever.’ He does everything right. Classy horse.”
A son of champion Uncle Mo, Conquest Mo Money won his first three career starts this year at Sunland Park in New Mexico, where Hernandez is among the leading trainers. Conquest Mo Money won two stakes leading up to the Sunland Derby, captured by Oaklawn maiden graduate Hence.
Conquest Mo Money, who has tactical speed, broke from post 11 in the 11-horse Sunland Derby field. He is scheduled to break from post 11 in the projected 12-horse Arkansas Derby field.
“When he ran in the Sunland Derby, I didn’t want a short field because if he qualifies for the Kentucky Derby, there’s going to be 20 horses,” Hernandez said. “He’s ready. I want to cross my fingers, have a lot of luck and win.”
Conquest Mo Money has twice beaten Irap, who broke his maiden in last Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Only One Dreamy Dude, is higher on the Arkansas Derby morning line than Grandpa’s Dream (30-1 ML), who needed four career starts at the meeting to break his maiden March 25.
“We’re sending a prayer up and hoping for a blessing,” trainer Chris Hartman said. “We have our back up against the wall.”
Hartman is also scheduled to saddle the more accomplished Balandeen in Saturday’s $150,000 Northern Spur Stakes, but the Bernardini colt was never an Arkansas Derby candidate, the trainer said.
“The owner of Grandpa’s Dream really wanted to run in this race,” Hartman said. “Balandeen, I was just looking for something where he could be maybe a little more competitive.”
Hartman was Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 2015.
LOOKIN AT LEE
“It’s a home track. They’re both settled in here and very comfortable training here,” trainer Steve Asmussen said of his Arkansas Derby horses. “No surprises that way, and I expect them both to perform at their best.
“The racetrack has been playing very speed-favoring, I think, the whole meet, which is a concern for Lookin At Lee, and traffic of course. But the opportunity is upon us, and they will do well. The ability level of Classic Empire and Malagacy is quite impressive, and we will have to step it up to beat either.”
Malagacy galloped Friday morning under assistant trainer Adele Bellinger.
Rebel winner Malagacy will attempt to run his record to four for four in the Arkansas Derby, and beyond that become the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby without racing at age 2 since Apollo in 1882.
Malagacy did not start until Jan. 4, when he won a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race in the Gulfstream Park slop by 15 lengths. He subsequently won a 6 1/2-furlong allowance by seven on a fast track and the 1 1/16-mile Rebel by two lengths. It wasn’t like the word was out on Malagacy early on. The $190,000 2-year-old purchase went off at almost 6-1 odds in his first start.
“He never really tipped his hand until maybe his final breeze before his debut, and he looked good there,” trainer Todd Pletcher said. “Obviously in his debut he was very good. But no, he’s not what I would describe as an impressive horse to watch gallop on a daily basis.
“He’s pretty laid back, pretty borderline lazy really. He’s one of those horses in his breezes that he does however much his workmate will do. So depending on how you have him matched up in the mornings, he’ll stay with whoever his workmate is. But he’s not what I’d describe as an overachiever in the mornings. He’s laid back to the point to where you’re not 1,000 percent sure how good he is until you start running him.”
Pletcher is seeking a fifth Arkansas Derby victory, following Graeme Hall in 2000, Balto Star in 2001, Overanalyze in 2013 and Danza in 2014. But it was his 2010 Arkansas Derby runner-up — Super Saver —that provided him a Kentucky Derby victory.
Some observations from Pletcher in a phone interview from Florida, where he’s overseeing preparations for his other Kentucky Derby horses:
On any horse winning its first three races: “It’s very difficult to do. I don’t know over the years how many horses we’ve had to that, but it’s probably a handful or so, or a little more. It takes a special kind of horse to win their debut. And it certainly takes an extra special kind of horse to win their debut and preliminary allowance condition and then, in this case, stretch out around two turns and ship across the country to win a stakes.
“Look, all races are hard to win. To win three in a row is hard to do. But to win your first three at three different distances at two different tracks is really difficult. A lot of it is about his own natural ability and his own professionalism, to show speed and rate at the same time. The thing I’ve always said is that I’m not sure how far he wants to go. But I think his disposition and his laid-back attitude.... As Javier said, he can ask him to break, get into the flow of the race and he can also turn off for him. That’s sort of a rare combination.”
On post 12 in the Arkansas Derby: “I think it’s fine. He’s got to break alertly, and you always worry when you’re on the outside like that and are in front of a big crowd and the stands. You just hope they break straight. As long as he get aways cleanly, Javier, regardless if he was 1 or 12 or anywhere in between, he’s going to ask him to leave the gate and establish some position going into the first turn. None of that changes. It does open up some options so he can see how the race unfolds inside of him. Ideally, you want to break well enough that you get to the first turn in good position and not hung out too wide.”
Complexion of the field, which on paper shapes up as basically the Rebel, plus 2-year-old champion Classic Empire and the speedy Rockin Rudy: “I didn’t necessarily anticipate that Classic Empire was going to be there, when I was thinking about it a while back. I think the question mark everyone has in their mind is how he’s going to run. When he’s on his A game, he’s exceptionally good. That’s what we all will be interested to see.”
ONE DREAMY DUDE
One Dreamy Dude won’t be the first maiden Jack Van Berg has started in the Arkansas Derby. Film Fortune ran seventh in the 2006 Arkansas Derby before breaking his maiden at Hollywood Park in his next start. One Dreamy Dude (50-1 ML) is winless in six career starts, including five at the meeting.
“This is a good horse,” Van Berg said.
Van Berg, 80, trains One Dreamy Dude for Muddy Waters Stable (Mike Waters), Oaklawn’s second-leading owner this year with 10 victories. Waters purchased the son of First Dude for $25,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co.’s June 2-year-old and horses of racing age sale
“He was big and well-balanced,” Van Berg said. “Had a beautiful stride to him galloping.”
Van Berg was Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 1983 and 1984. He is tied for sixth in the standings this year with 19 victories, his highest total in Hot Springs since 1986. Van Berg won the 1987 Kentucky Derby with Alysheba.
One Dreamy Dude will be racing with blinkers off.
Ron Moquett said he is happy with how Petrov has progressed since March 18 Rebel Stakes where he was a close fourth.
“He’s doing great,” Moquett said. “During this time of the year you want them to keep to moving forward in maturity and developing and he is doing all the right things. We are pumped up.”
Ricardo Santana Jr. is getting the mount this weekend. When asked if there were any planned instructions for him?
“Just going to tell him to ride him like he did Creator,” Moquett said.
Making his first start in a graded stakes, Rockin Rudy comes from the same combination (trainer Doug O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam) that sent out Irap a week earlier to become the first maiden to win the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. Rockin Rudy is extremely fast, but O’Neill believes the colt will relax early in the race with the blinkers coming off.
Exercise rider Gabriel Planchard said he watched a few of the Oaklawn races Thursday and was pleased to see speed faring well. He also liked the way the way Rockin Rudy galloped Friday morning. “He was pretty relaxed, so that’s a good thing,” he said. “It’s a fast track, and that’s good for him, having speed. We’re going to be all right, I think.
“They were going pretty fast at the races, so for him that’s good.”
Rockin Rudy will be ridden by Mario Gutierrez, who teamed with O’Neill and Reddam to win the Kentucky Derby in 2012 with I’ll Have Another and last year with Nyquist.
Rockin Rudy will race with blinkers off.
Silver Dust will be adding blinkers following a fifth-place finish in the Rebel Stakes. Trainer Randy Morse said he hopes the equipment will help the gray son of Tapit, a $510,000 2-year-old purchase, become more focused and not run in spurts.
“We had them on him in the summer,” said Morse. “There was a time we put them on him when he was doing his tricks. We put them on him for a while and then ended up taking them off.”
Silver Dust, who has never started in a race under a mile, was beaten 3 1/4 lengths in the Rebel and 12 1/4 lengths in his 3-year-old debut, the Southwest Stakes.
Morse has worked Silver Dust twice since the Rebel – both in company – and said after the race that he believes added distance could work in his favor Saturday.
“If he’ll improve as much off his first race here as he did going into his second, and now to this one, maybe we’ll have a chance,” Morse said.
Silver Dust has a 1-0-0 record in four lifetime starts.
Rebel runner-up Sonneteer galloped and schooled in the starting gate Friday morning and was scheduled to school between races in the indoor paddock at Oaklawn under the supervision of assistant trainer Julie Clark.
Sonneteer is winless in nine starts, with four seconds and two thirds, but has earned $234,445. After being ridden in the Rebel by Richard Eramia, the son of Midnight Lute will have three-time Kentucky Derby winner Kent Desormeaux in the saddle Saturday.
Kent Desormeaux has ridden Sonneteer five times for his brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux, including a fourth-place finish in the California Derby that was the colt’s only stakes foray until the Rebel. Kent said his brother asked him about coming to Arkansas for the Rebel. Instead, Kent and his agent opted to stay and ride at Santa Anita where the jockey had several mounts including one in a grade I race. Sonneteer, meanwhile, rallied to take second at 112-1 odds in the Rebel, two lengths behind unbeaten Malagacy.
“He told me the horse was improving dramatically in the mornings,” Kent said. “He got to say ‘I told you so’ afterwards…. But my agent and I, and then Keith, decided that I should stay and ride the six horses I was on, rather than to come and ride Sonneteer, who was a longshot. But Keith told me that the horse was going to run very well and would enjoy the distance, that the farther we go, the better off he’ll be. Kind of like Real Quiet. He didn’t show that talent until he was able to run them into the ground in the distance races.”
Real Quiet was Kent Desormeaux’s first Kentucky Derby winner.
“I was very surprised, yes,” Kent said of Sonneteer’s big Rebel performance. “I had breezed him a couple of times, though. He’s getting stronger, getting faster, quite honestly. His muscles are growing up to his bones. He’s a big boy.”
He said he had been discussing the Arkansas Derby with his brother since the Rebel.
“‘What am I going to do? What am I going to do?’” Kent said. “We just came to the conclusion that we both would like to take our best chances. We’re family, so we’ll keep it in the family to boot.
“God forbid, I stay home and he runs one, two, three in fine fashion. And then it would be impossible to get on him.”
Owner Mike Langford of Jonesboro, Ark., was on hand to watch Untrapped gallop early Friday. Untrapped will race in blinkers for the first time and picks up Mike Smith as jockey.
After winning a Churchill Downs’ maiden race in his second start, Untrapped has had a pair of seconds and a third in the Rebel (a nose out of second) in graded stakes. Langford said he liked post 9 in the 12-horse field for his nearly-black son of Trappe Shot.
“There’s true speed on the rail,” he said of California-based Rockin Rudy, who comes out of two grass sprints, and champion Classic Empire. “And then next to him is Classic Empire, and they both have speed. Then Malagacy is to our outside. Being separated like that, I think Mike will be in a good spot, in the catbird seat.”
Langford said trainer Steve Asmussen asked him what he thought about riding the 51-year-old Smith, who rode at Oaklawn Park as a teenager. “I said, ‘Are you really asking me that question?’ That was a no-brainer.”
Of adding blinkers, Langford said, “He kind of got lost on the backside in the Rebel. Steve just wanted him to be a little more focused. I think he has been.”
Asmussen’s trio of Saturday stakes horses had controlled gallops on Friday, loping along with their necks bowed.
“It’s a home track. They’re both settled in here and very comfortable training here,” Asmussen said of his Arkansas Derby horses. “No surprises that way, and I expect them both to perform at their best.
No notes available.