Classic Empire Works Toward Arkansas Derby
Photo: Courtesy Mark Casse
Trainer Mark Casse and Classic Empire at Winding Oaks Farm

John Oxley's reigning juvenile male champion Classic Empire worked April 3 at Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla. in preparation for his anticipated start in the Arkansas Derby (G1) April 15 at Oaklawn Park

Trainer Mark Casse thought the five-furlong move Monday, with Julien Leparoux aboard, was an improvement from last week's strong effort.

"I was very pleased," Casse said. "The track was a little loose, I don't know where it came from but last night it was very windy, and in the chute the dust was flying up and he kind of spun his wheels for a second. But as good as he worked last week, I thought this was even better."

Breaking from the gate and working in company with multiple graded stakes winner Airoforce, the Pioneerof the Nile   colt eventually broke off from his partner and completed five furlongs in :59 3/5, while Airoforce was credited with 1:01.

"Airoforce is a good work horse himself, and it's not too many times that your sparring partner is a multiple graded stakes winner who was second in the Breeders' Cup," the Canadian Hall of Fame conditioner said of the 4-year-old colt who finished a neck behind Hit It a Bomb in the 2015 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T).

"I thought last week that Classic Empire struggled a little bit to get away from Airoforce, but today he did it easily."

Classic Empire was transferred to Winding Oaks after refusing to break off in a scheduled breeze March 19 at Palm Meadows Training Center. Since then, he's had three works in Ocala, previously breezing five furlongs March 22 in 1:01 2/5 and five furlongs from the gate March 28 in :59.30. The trainer said his champion is happy and the team is planning the trip to Hot Springs, Ark., in a similar schedule to what they did before winning the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1).

Casse had previously considered first shipping the champion to Churchill Downs but now plans to keep Classic Empire in Ocala before going directly to Oaklawn.

"It didn't make sense for us to ship him to Kentucky and then Arkansas, we figured we'd keep him in Ocala, he's happy," Casse said. "I just want him to get out there and gallop a few days. 

"It's actually similar to what we did for the Breeders' Cup. I think we flew out Monday and he galloped (at Santa Anita Park) Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and he won the Breeders' Cup on Saturday."

After capping off his champion juvenile season with four wins, including a score in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1), the colt has made one start in 2017—a third-place finish in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2). His connections found a foot abscess after the race at Gulfstream Park, and then later the colt seemed to show signs of back problems, delaying his next prep race for the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).

Bred in Kentucky by Steve and Brandi Nicholson, Classic Empire was a $475,000 yearling purchase at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale and now has earnings of more than $1.5 million. He currently is ranked 14th on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 32 points. 

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