Classic Empire Strikes Back in Arkansas Derby

Some horses just have to have things their way or no way and John Oxley’s Classic Empire made it clear early on that he is one of those horses. After a spring filled with training troubles, the bay colt gamely ran down Conquest Mo Money on Saturday, April 15 to win the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park by half a length despite running on the wrong lead, reminding critics why he was so highly regarded last year.

The break from the gate was good for the full field of twelve and Conquest Mo Money and Grandpa’s Dream went straight to the front to trade the leading position back and forth while Classic Empire bided his time in sixth under regular rider Julien Leparoux. The leaders took the field through fractions of :22.75 for the quarter and :46.92 for the half mile. Rebel Stakes winner Malagacy was just ahead of Classic Empire and was asked to make his move going into the final turn; at the same time, Leparoux directed his mount to the outside and unleashed him. It briefly seemed that Malagacy was set to open up but after bumping with Conquest Mo Money, ended up being of no consequence to the winner, who roared past his competition to hit the wire in 1:48.93.

Conquest Mo Money held on for second, with Lookin at Lee getting up for third over Sonneteer. Malagacy faded to fifth.

“He took me to the race. Usually he is a little keen and today he was, which is a good sign for him,” said Leparoux. “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.”

The Arkansas Derby was Classic Empire’s second race of the year and the first since February, when he ran third in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. A hoof abscess was discovered shortly after the race and believed to have largely contributed to the performance. He missed training time with the abscess and then refused to work – once because of later-diagnosed back issues and another time that trainer Mark Casse contributed to the colt’s quirkiness.

Casse sent the son of Pioneerofthe Nile to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, where he successfully worked four times before shipping to Arkansas.

“He just has so much ability. I knew if we could get him here that he’d be tough,” Casse said. “He’s been a challenge, but the last month and a half have been good. I’ve always believed in him. I knew he had a tremendous amount of ability and I thought he was ready today. I’m proud of him. He’s like a teenage child … sometimes you want to strangle them, but he just has so much talent.”

Classic Empire debuted last May at Churchill Downs, breaking his maiden at first asking. He moved into graded stakes company in his second start, taking the Bashford Manor easily. He displayed his quirky side in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, wheeling after breaking from the gate and dumping Leparoux. From there he recorded victories in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. From his 7 races he has 5 victories and a third for earnings of $2,120,220.

“We ran into a few issues, and thanks to the genius of Mark Casse, we found the solution,” said Oxley. “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 colt respected him, he trained so well with him and here we are.”

Casse will ship his colt to Churchill Downs, where he will train until the Kentucky Derby.

Classic Empire was bred in Kentucky by Steven and Brandi Nicholson and is out of the Cat Thief mare Sambuca Classica. Oxley purchased him for $475,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, where he was consigned by Warrendale Sales.

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