It had been some time since Classic Empire had the opportunity to make a statement on his own behalf.
Ever since his seasonal bow went awry and the setbacks in the aftermath piled up in exhausting fashion, there were no shortage of opinions on what might really be troubling the reigning juvenile champion and whether John Oxley's colt should just be written off the Road to Kentucky Derby.
From his lost training time to his aborted works, ample critics weighed in on whether Classic Empire could get right in time to have the kind of impact the first Saturday in May he had over his classmates last fall. Under determined handling from jockey Julien Leparoux in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), the son of Pioneerof the Nile let his actions do what no amount of explanations from his camp could—silence some of the doubts that mounted since February with a reminder of why he inspired such chatter to begin with.
The colt regarded as the most talented member of his generation last season locked himself into a chance to reinforce that belief May 6 when he surged past Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy in late stretch to capture the April 15 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, locking himself into the field for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
In his first outing since a dull third in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park, Classic Empire let his class carry him to arguably the most crucial win in his young career. The bay colt missed training time due to a foot abscess discovered shortly after the Holy Bull and then had a couple of works aborted—one March 3 due to some later-diagnosed back issues and another March 19 for reasons trainer Mark Casse couldn't really pinpoint other than the colt's quirkiness.
With the clock ticking on his Kentucky Derby aspirations, Casse tried to revive his protege's mindset by sending him to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, where he was finally able to get four timed moves into the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner. If he wasn't 100% fit, Classic Empire was still good and game enough to snatch 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points when he unleashed a determined rally on the far outside, just getting a half-length in front of runner-up Conquest Mo Money despite running on the wrong lead.
"He just has so much ability. I knew if we could get him here that he'd be tough," said Casse, a finalist for the Racing Hall of Fame this season. "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 has always been his own worst enemy. Prior to his Holy Bull defeat, his only other loss came when he wheeled out of the gate and dropped Irad Ortiz Jr. in the Hopeful Stakes (G1) last September.
When he's right, he's a professional talent that can handle a variety of race scenarios and still deliver a winning run. He got tested on that front early in the Arkansas Derby as he rated sixth in tight quarters between Rockin Rudy and Untrapped, while Grandpa's Dream and Conquest Mo Money traded turns up front through fractions :22.75 and :46.92.
Rebel Stakes (G2) winner Malagacy tracked just ahead of the champion as that top pack bunched up, and when that one put in his bid for the lead around the final turn, Leparoux tipped Classic Empire to the far outside and called upon the form that rattled off wins in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) and Bashford Manor Stakes (G3) last year in addition to their Breeders' Cup triumph.
"He took me to the race. Usually he is a little keen and today he was, which is a good sign for him," Leparoux said. "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.
"He wasn't 100% today, so I was expecting him to be a little tired. He is a nice horse. He did it today. I think he is a special horse."
With Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy battling and bumping each other in the stretch, Classic Empire roared by in the final strides to hit the wire in 1:48.93 over a fast track.
Conquest Mo Money held for second, with Lookin At Lee coming on late to get up by half a length for third over Sonneteer. Malagacy faded to fifth late as Untrapped came home sixth in the 11-horse field.
"We ran into a few issues, and thanks to the genius of Mark Casse, we found the solution," Oxley said. "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 horse respected him, he trained so well with him and here we are."
Bred by Steven and Brandi Nicholson, Classic Empire improved his record to five wins from seven starts with $2,120,220 in earnings. Sent off as the 9-5 favorite, he paid $5.80, $4.40, and $3.80 across the board.
Now that he has the colt back on track, the real work begins for Casse in getting Classic Empire set for the first leg of the Triple Crown. The trainer said he would ship the bay runner back to his base at Churchill Downs—a track over which his stable standout is unbeaten in two career tries over.
"That's home for him. We'll get him back there and come up with a game plan," Casse said. "I think the toughest deal is over, getting to this point. Now he won't have to do too much going into the Derby."