The talent was always there. The behavior finally caught up with it.
Classic Empire, a rangy, good-looking son of Pioneerof the Nile , came to hand under the tutelage of Mark and Norm Casse, and then left the rest of the juvenile division in arrears as he claimed the Eclipse Award for 2016’s top 2-year-old male unanimously.
Despite his first three running lines reading "slow early," "ducked in start," and "wheeled start, lost rider," Classic Empire managed to win four of his five starts on the season. When the Casses got to giving Classic Empire extra schooling and work in the starting gate, and added blinkers for his efforts in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity and Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (both G1), Classic Empire really strutted his stuff and headed into his sophomore campaign with $1,485,920 in the bank.
That bank belongs to John Oxley, who parted with $475,000 to land Classic Empire, out of the Cat Thief mare Sambuca Classica, during the third session of the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale. Just two weeks before Classic Empire took the Juvenile, Oxley and his wife, Debby, learned of the death of their 2001 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Monarchos. The Oxleys endured lean years after their Derby triumph, but their teaming with Casse has rejuvenated both owner and trainer, and Classic Empire, with continuing maturity, could well return them to glory under the Twin Spires.
“It was like being in orbit again,” Oxley said. “Classic Empire took me back to that level. I’ve never had a 2-year-old that did this well. It was really a special year watching him.”
Classic Empire lifted the curtain on his career at Churchill Downs three days before last year’s Derby. Over a sloppy track he spotted his field three lengths, but roared through the lane to win by 1 1/2 lengths going 41⁄2 furlongs. Back at Churchill in July, he began seven lengths in arrears in the Bashford Manor Stakes (G3), but rolled late to take the six-furlong event by three-quarters of a length. He ran out of luck at Saratoga Race Course in the grade 1 Hopeful Stakes, however, when he dumped jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. at the start, prompting the extra work of the Casse team and the addition of blinkers.
Classic Empire was a perfect gentleman at Keeneland in the Breeders’ Futurity, setttling into a stalking trip, taking command at the top of the lane, and cruising to a three-length triumph. In the Breeders’ Cup he again set himself up beautifully, prompting the fast pace of Syndergaard from second and then holding off Not This Time late to earn his hardware.
“He’s the most impressive 2-year-old winner I’ve had,” said Mark Casse, not exactly tamping down expectations that Classic Empire could follow in the footsteps of another Pioneerof the Nile colt, American Pharoah , who did pretty well at 3.