On paper it reads like a coronation: a big-money yearling turned 2-year-old champion, and now the expected Kentucky Derby favorite fresh off Arkansas Derby triumph. In a sport that often makes a mockery of high expectations, this is the natural progression many envisioned for Classic Empire from the very beginning.
In reality of course, Classic Empire’s timely (re)ascension to the top of the class is much more complicated.
The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champ made his much anticipated season debut on Feb. 4th in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, only to finish an alarmingly distant third. It was clear, even to the untrained eye, the horse wanted no part of the action that day, washing out in the post parade and balking at the load. So it wasn’t a complete surprise when it was soon discovered the colt was dealing with a hoof abscess and soreness in his back. Even after getting clearance to resume training however, the colt basically refused to work, leaving trainer Mark Casse and his team searching for a solution to what was ailing their star, and what exactly made this complicated champion tick.
So Casse hit reset. He took his champ off the road and shipped him to the serenity of Ocala’s Winding Oaks Farm for a change of scenery and pace. Sure enough, Classic Empire soon regained his stride and eagerness, giving his connections enough confidence to ship him to Oaklawn Park for the Arkansas Derby.
All they could do was hold their breath and hope he’d hold it together mentally to allow his physical gifts take over.
“He just has so much ability. I knew if we could get him here that he’d be tough,” said Casse. “He’s been a challenge, but the last month and a half have been good—a lot of chapters to the book I’m writing,” he joked.
As far as prep races go, his connections could not have scripted the Arkansas Derby any better. After bobbling out of the gate the colt flashed his exceptional ability by recovering in stride. Racing mid-pack, he took a few bumps and a face-full of dirt—exactly the type of adversity one can expect to see on Derby Day—before wheeling outside to mow down his foes in the final furlong under little more than a hand urging from jockey Julien Leparoux.
“He walked in the gate and relaxed,” said Leparoux, who has been on the colt from the beginning. “He took me to the race. Usually he is a little keen and today he was, which is a good sign for him. In the Holy Bull he was just not himself. Today, I knew I was loaded. I just needed to get there. He’s a special horse.”
Classic Empire’s return to form brings clarity to what has been a muddled Kentucky Derby picture void of scintillating star power. He will almost certainly be the clear-cut post-time favorite should he in fact make it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May without any more setbacks.
Expectations have always been high for the son of Pioneerof the Nile, purchased as a yearling for $475,000 by John Oxley, who won the 2001 Kentucky Derby with his colt Monarchos. Oxley has been in the game long enough to know the potential pitfalls lurking on the path to prominence, and that even great horses need a great team behind them.
“We ran into a few issues, and thanks to the genius of Mark Casse—brilliant trainer—we found the solution,” Oxley said. “We had Julien aboard; he stayed with us of course. [In Ocala] We found a rider named Martin [Rivera]. I think he was the wild card. The horse respected him. He trained so well with him and here we are.”
“It was a tough winter, I am not going to lie,” said Leparoux. “Come January we expected so much from him and after the Holy Bull he just went downhill from there. It was hard to see whenever we got off the wagon, but at the same time we were running out of time. Today was the last race we could get before the [Kentucky] Derby, so it was very important for us to get in. Mark and his team did an awesome job, so the credit goes to them.”
While his handlers deserves much of the credit for patiently developing their star, Casse is quick to heap praise back on his horse. As he told Bloodhorse, “…the key to it all is he’s a really, really, really good horse. And really, really good horses can overcome a lot of things.”
Seems so simple, but surely it is not.