John Oxley's Classic Empire was on his best behavior Oct. 8 at Keeneland, and the additional work his connections have done paid off with a victory in the $500,000 Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (gr. I).
The 2-year-old Pioneerof the Nile colt trained by Mark Casse infamously wheeled and dropped Irad Ortiz Jr. at the start of the Sept. 5 Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course, but—equipped with blinkers for the first time—he ran straight and true to victory in the 1 1/16-mile Breeders' Futurity, sweeping past dueling leaders Wild Shot and Blame Will at the head of the stretch.
"We took him out to the track the next day," said assistant trainer Norm Casse. "He's trained with blinkers on from that point. This horse looks at everything and he just doesn't look...he looks and reacts and so if he sees something, he stops. We breezed him twice out of the gate (once at Saratoga and once at Churchill Downs) to make sure the problem was fixed and he's just trained really, really well. It paid dividends today. We'll more forward from here. You've got to think this horse has plenty of room to improve."
Classic Empire held off a late charge by Lookin At Lee to score by three lengths under jockey Julien Leparoux. The final time was 1:43.41 on a fast track.
"Today he broke sharp and was all business. He ran a big race," Leparoux said. "I was a bit surprised to be where I was, but he did it easy and he was happy where he was. He got a little bit tired at the end, but he hasn't been running for a while, so we expected that."
The winner paid $5.20, $4.20, and $3.60 as the 8-5 favorite in a field of 12. Lookin At Lee brought $12 and $8, and Wild Shot ($18.20) completed the trifecta.
Bred in Kentucky by Steven Nicholson and Brandi Nicholson out of the Cat Thief mare Sambuca Classica, Classic Empire was a $475,000 purchase by Oxley from Warrendale Sales' consignment to the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale.
The victory was worth $300,000 and increased his earnings to $385,920, with a record of three wins from four starts. The winner of the Bashford Manor Stakes (gr. III) before his Hopeful incident, Classic Empire also earned a berth in the $2 million Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) Nov. 5 at Santa Anita Park.