Champion Classic Empire rebounded big time in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park last weekend and at least he is peaking at just the right time.
The race unfolded pretty much how it looked on paper. Grandpa’s Dream had no chance at 85-1 but he did make the lead. By the time they got to the half-mile, Conquest Mo Money had the lead after going :46.92. He led after the six furlongs in 1:11.16 and even at the top of the lane after a mile in 1:36.43, he had the lead. Conquest Mo Money ran very well to be second considering he had been racing at Sunland Park.
Champion Classic Empire bobbled briefly, raced in traffic while between horses, went into the far turn three to four paths wide but was patiently handled by jockey Julien Leparoux. He got the nine furlongs in 1:48.93 and earned a 94 Beyer Speed Figure.
Last year, Creator won the Arkansas Derby in 1:50.14. In 2015 American Pharoah won the Arkansas Derby in 1:48.52, which was the fastest time since Sir Cherokee ran 1:48.39 in 2003.
Champion Classic Empire is trained by Mark Casse and he has done an excellent job with this youngster. Classic Empire is not the ideal student. He is a bad actor, he behaves horribly at times and he has just can explode in the heat of action. In the Hopeful last summer at Saratoga, Classic Empire did a left turn at the start and dropped his rider. That was the only time he ran out of the money in his career.
He has some things going for him though. He loves Churchill Downs as he graduated there in his debut in the slop and he also won the Breeders’ Futurity last fall in his first start around two turns.
With just one outstanding race in almost half a year, you have to wonder if the Arkansas Derby gave Classic Empire enough foundation for the grueling run in the mile and a quarter Kentucky Derby. He already has overcome adversity. He came out of that Holy Bull race early in the year with a foot abscess, twice balked at working at Palm Meadows, was treated for a back problem and then was re-routed to the Winding Oaks training center in Ocala. At that facility worked three times in stellar fashion before heading to Oaklawn.
The question is how champion Classic Empire will respond. There is a horseracing theory about a bounce. A bounce is when a horse comes back after a long layoff and runs a bang-up race. That race can be a win or just a solid taxing effort. A bounce is just what it suggests. The said runner will bounce and regress after a taxing comeback try. This is not just a theory but it happens. It doesn’t happen to every horse and it’s very hard to predict if a bounce is about to happen.
History has been kind to the Arkansas Derby. It has become an important prep for the Kentucky Derby as many winners of this race have won classic races. Arkansas Derby winners Sunny’s Halo and Smarty Jones posted the Arkansas Derby/Kentucky Derby as did Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
Classic Empire has the blood on top to be a star. He is by Pioneerof the Nile, who not only won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby but also sired Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. His dam was unraced and although she dropped a number of winners, they were primarily sprinters.
As for the other prep last weekend, the Lexington Stakes, the winner is a nice horse but he is not going anywhere soon. Several runners had rough trips in the Keeneland race and Senior Investment’s come-from-behind style worked to perfection. My selection, West Coast, didn’t have much of an excuse. I would have expected him to be closer to the lead early but he was seventh of tenth at one point. The Bob Baffert student made a nice move to go from seventh to first in two calls and he had the lead at the top of the stretch. He just could not hold off Senior Investment and lost by a head. There was another neck back to No Dozing, who also came from off the pace. The first three finishers were all together on the finish line and that is often a sign of just an ordinary race.
Senior Investment finished like a horse that will adore the distance of the Kentucky Derby but unless there are a few defections, he is unlikely to be in the starting gate. He only earned ten qualifying points for the Derby and that is far less than the traditional number needed to start. At this point, there are five horses that are tied from 16th through 20th in the Kentucky Derby point standings.
McCraken, Battle of Midway, Patch, Battalion Runner and Cloud Computing all have 40 points. The other runners with 10 qualifying points are Lancaster Bomber, Impressive Edge, Reach the World and Hollywood Handsome.
Impressive Edge is not nominated to the Triple Crown races and Hollywood Handsome was a late Triple Crown nominee.
Champion Classic Empire is not the only Kentucky Derby candidate Casse has this year. He also trains State of Honor, who is in the body of the race right now with 62 points. Casse knows what to do with a good horse too. He has been the best trainer in Canada numerous times and was the leading trainer at Woodbine eleven times. He has been in the racing game since he has been a teenager and he learned at the foot of his father Norman. Mark has always had a way with young horses and he won Canada’s most important race. In 2014 his student Lexie Lou won the Queen’s Plate. Casse also will not shrink from the moment. In 2015 he won a pair of Breeders’ Cup races when Catch a Glimpse won the Juvenile Fillies Turf and Tepin took the BC Mile. Last year, Casse was inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame.
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