Since 2004, winners of the GI Arkansas Derby have gone on to post victories in no fewer than eight subsequent 3-year-old Classic races, including the history-making Triple Crown sweep by American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) in 2015. Entering this season, John Oxley’s Classic Empire (Pioneerof the Nile) was the one they were all aiming for. After all, the lone blemish on his juvenile ledger was the GI Hopeful S., when he wheeled at the break and lost jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. Victories in Keeneland’s GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity in October and a narrow success in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile the following month clinched an Eclipse statuette, but to say 2017 had gotten off to a far less straight-forward beginning would be a monumental understatement. Extremely disappointing when only third to ‘TDN Rising Star’ Irish War Cry (Curlin) as the 1-2 chalk in the GII Lambholm South Holy Bull S. Feb. 4, Classic Empire was off the worktab for better than five weeks with a foot abscess and back issue and flat out refused to breeze in South Florida Mar. 20 before a decision was made to send the colt to Winding Oaks Farm near Ocala. Originally pointing for the GII Toyota Blue Grass, Classic Empire was instead re-routed to Arkansas, and suggested to his connections of late that he was rounding into something approaching his form of 2016. Saturday afternoon, in front of a typically large closing-day card at the Central Arkansas oval, Classic Empire came charging down the center of the track to thrust himself straight back into the thick of the Kentucky Derby picture just three weeks down the road.
Saturday, Oaklawn Park
ARKANSAS DERBY-GI, $1,000,000, OP, 4-15, 3yo, 1 1/8m, 1:48.93, ft.
1–CLASSIC EMPIRE, 122, c, 3, by Pioneerof the Nile
1st Dam: Sambuca Classica, by Cat Thief
2nd Dam: In Her Glory, by Miswaki
3rd Dam: Forever Waving, by Hoist the Flag
($475,000 Ylg ’15 KEESEP). O-John C. Oxley; B-Steven
& Brandi Nicholson (KY); T-Mark E. Casse; J-Julien R. Leparoux.
$600,000. Lifetime Record: Ch. 2yo Colt, MGISW, 7-5-0-1,
$2,120,220. *1/2 to Anytime Magic (Fusaichi Pegasus), MSW,
$202,945; Uptown Twirl (Twirling Candy), SW, $170,714. Click
for the eNicks report & 5-cross pedigree. Werk Nick Rating:
A+++ *Triple Plus*.2–Conquest Mo Money, 122, c, 3, Uncle Mo–Stirring, by
Seeking the Gold. ($180,000 Ylg ’15 SARAUG; $8,500 2yo ’16
KEENOV). O-Judge Lanier Racing; B-Twin Creeks Farm (NY);
T-Miguel L. Hernandez. $200,000.3–Lookin At Lee, 122, c, 3, Lookin At Lucky–Langara Lass, by
Langfuhr. ($70,000 Ylg ’15 KEESEP). O-L and N Racing LLC;
B-Ray Hanson (KY); T-Steven M. Asmussen. $100,000.Margins: HF, 1, HF. Odds: 1.90, 17.60, 12.10.
Also Ran: Sonneteer, Malagacy, Untrapped, Silver Dust, Rowdy the Warrior, Petrov, One Dreamy Dude, Grandpa’s Dream, Rockin Rudy. Click for the Equibase.com chart or the free Equineline.com catalogue-style pedigree. VIDEO, sponsored by Fasig-Tipton.
In a mad dash through the opening furlong, it was Petrov (Flatter) who had a head in front passing the judge for the first time, but he had all sorts of company inside and out, including Conquest Mo Money from the four path and favored Malagacy (Shackleford)–away only fairly from gate 12–widest out. Julien Leparoux had Classic Empire in an amongst that front rank very early, but took a pull and got his colt to race inside of three runners comprising the second flight of horses. Grandpa’s Dream (Shackleford) took the initiative turning up the backstretch to lead from Conquest Mo Money, while Malagacy raced in the three path with Classic Empire on his back. Untrapped, in no-man’s land at the five-eighths, went for an early run, but was no better than four or five deep on the track, with Malagacy just ahead and Classic Empire to his inside and about a half-length behind. The top eight were covered by about four lengths with a half-mile to travel, and Conquest Mo Money was the first to make a decisive move to head off Grandpa’s Dream into the turn, but Malagacy and Untrapped were revving up three and four wide, respectively, while Leparoux continued to slipstream the race favorite. Malagacy poked his nose in front in upper stretch, but his lead was short-lived as Conquest Mo Money punched right back, despite some wayward antics approaching the final eighth of a mile. The blue-collar runner began reaching for the wire, but Classic Empire, pulled out into about the four path at the top of the lane, ran him down in the dying strides.
“I was pretty nervous,” trainer Mark Casse admitted. “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.”
Asked if he’d have been satisfied with a board finish, Casse added, “I would have been. 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.”
Javier Castellano, rider of Malagacy, bemoaned the actions of the gate crew and said, “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.”
Classic Empire’s dam Sambuca Classica was winless in eight starts for winning breeders Steven and Brandi Nicholson, but her second foal Anytime Magic (Fusaichi Pegasus) was a two-time stakes winner. Her third foal Uptown Twirl (Twirling Candy), who is a year older than Classic Empire, was a $110,000 KEESEP yearling turned $630,000 OBS March juvenile purchase by bloodstock agent David Ingordo on behalf of Kosta Hronis’s Hronis Racing. She won four of nine starts for Hronis and trainer John Sadler, including a pair of stakes in California, and was hammered down to Three Chimneys Farm for $1.075-million at the 2016 Keeneland November sale, just days after Classic Empire’s Breeders’ Cup victory. Sambuca Classica, a daughter of SW & MGISP In Her Glory (Miswaki), is also responsible for a juvenile colt by Concord Point. She was bred back to Uncle Mo after that, but aborted the foal and produced a Candy Ride (Arg) filly Mar. 4 of this year. Classic Empire is the second juvenile champion for his sire Pioneerof the Nile, whose first Eclipse winner was Triple Crown hero American Pharoah, the top juvenile colt of 2014 and champion 3-year-old male and Horse of the Year in 2015. Click here for more on owner John Oxley.