Having made his way in the natural gas exploration business, John Oxley knows about ups and downs and risk. It’s part of what drove him into the Thoroughbred world, a passion of his since he was in high school and attended the 1954 Kentucky Derby won by a gray colt named Determine.
Forty-seven years later, Oxley and his wife, Debby, would get to the Derby winner’s circle at Churchill Downs after their gray colt, Monarchos, scorched his way to victory in 2001. Since then, the Oklahoma native and star polo player has blown alternately hot and cold in the sport, but lately the winds of change have brought the welcome scent of success back to the Oxleys, who will have a pair of Breeders’ Cup starters in La Coronel in the Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr. IT) and the impressive Classic Empire in the Sentient Jet Juvenile (gr. I).
“It’s certainly been a roller-coaster of highs and lows, which I guess makes it exciting and unpredictable,” said Oxley, who owns Fawn Leap Farm just outside Midway, Ky. “We’re having a good season, and we’ve been fortunate with Classic Empire, who is the leader of the pack.”
Oxley went to $475,000 to land the son of Pioneerof the Nile as a Keeneland September yearling, having looked him over several times with his trainer, Mark Casse.
“He had the perfect conformation and I told Mark we had to buy him,” Oxley said of the colt who won the Oct. 8 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) about 100 yards from that auction ring.
Oxley has enjoyed a rebirth in the sport this year, taking the Winning Colors Stakes (gr. III) with Diva Express, the Spinaway Stakes (gr. I) with Pretty City Dancer, the JP Morgan Chase Jessamine Stakes (gr. IIIT) with La Coronel, and the Futurity and Bashford Manor Stakes (gr. III) with Classic Empire. Last season the stable saw Noble Bird win the grade I Stephen Foster Handicap and the grade III Pimlico Special Handicap, Airoforce win the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) and the Dixiana Bourbon Stakes (gr. III), and SkyTreasure win the Nassau Stakes (Can-IIT).
Oxley is quick to affix the credit to his trainer.
“There are so many components,” he said, “but foremost is Mark Casse and his incredible team. He’s put together the finest operation out there with top assistants and personnel on all levels. He’s the brains behind it all. And he’s awfully good at picking out yearlings and 2-year-olds to buy.”
Classic Empire broke his maiden at first asking this May at Churchill Downs and won the Bashford Manor in just his second start. The only flaw in those performances was the colt’s inability to break cleanly. That manifested itself in a big way in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Race Course in September, when he wheeled leaving the gate and dumped his rider as the odds-on favorite. Casse and company needed to go to work to get the talented runner back on track.
Adding blinkers, Casse worked the colt from the gate twice and then brought him back in the Breeders’ Futurity. This time, Classic Empire broke clean as a whistle, settled into a stalking trip, and cruised to a professional three-length victory.
“He did everything I could have hoped for that day,” said Oxley. “He was perfect and won under a hand ride, so you couldn’t have asked for anything better. I’ve been around this sport for 45 years and have had a lot of setbacks, so it’s nice to get optimistic and feel good about your program. We’re pretty excited right now; he’s continued to train well.”
In addition to Classic Empire and La Coronel, who owns back-to-back turf wins, Oxley is excited about Speedmeister, who broke his maiden at Keeneland and looks like a 2-year-old with a future.
Hopefully that future includes possible Kentucky Derby appearances by Speedmeister and Classic Empire.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Oxley said about winning the roses. “You hope to do it again, but who knows.”
The up-and-down nature of the game was again brought home when Monarchos died recently.
“It’s been a sad few days,” allowed Oxley. “He brings back so many memories and was such a great horse throughout his 2-year-old season and through the Derby. So many thrills. He’s been such a popular horse standing at Nuckols Farm close to our farm. He had visitors from all over the world and it was a wonderful 18 years racing and then as a stallion. Gray horses are always popular and gray Derby winners are even more popular. He struck a note with racing fans everywhere.”