The matchup on paper said it would take something exceptional for reigning juvenile male champion Classic Empire to suffer a blemish in the $350,000 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2). Calling upon his own upside and a dash of family history, Isabelle de Tomaso's unbeaten homebred Irish War Cry produced an effort in the 1 1/16 miles test that could be the start of something truly special.
The first seismic shift among the 3-year-old male class for 2017 hit Feb. 4 when New Jersey-bred Irish War Cry took down champion Classic Empire and five others in front-running fashion to win the Holy Bull Stakes by 3 3/4 lengths, signaling his arrival on the Triple Crown trail.
Trained by Graham Motion, Irish War Cry was making just his third career start and first try against graded stakes company. Nearly ten years to the day that his sire, eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin , broke his maiden over the Gulfstream surface, Irish War Cry looked like a candidate to follow in his classic-winning father's footsteps as he led every point of call while Classic Empire struggled home third behind runner-up Gunnevera.
"He's a really nice horse and I was obviously really high on him, but when you're running against the juvenile champion, you have reservations," Motion said. "I was torn. I was toying with the idea of running in the Sam F. Davis (at Tampa Bay Downs, Feb. 11). I thought it might be a little easier race, because he's so lightly raced. But the more I looked at it, the way he was working, I just thought we had to take a shot today."
Where Classic Empire seemingly held a huge class advantage off the strength of a 2-year-old campaign that saw him notch a championship-clinching win in the Nov. 5 Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), the son of Pioneerof the Nile had not raced since that triumph, leaving the door open a crack that he could be vulnerable in his seasonal bow.
In his first outing since taking the Marylander Stakes at Laurel Park Dec. 31, Irish War Cry bolted through that opening of opportunity. With Joel Rosario up, the chestnut colt got away strong from post No. 5 and was cruising under his own power through fractions of :24.14 and :47.92 with Talk Logistics second and Classic Empire three-wide in third down the backstretch.
While Rosario still had not moved on Irish War Cry around the final turn, jockey Julien Leparoux began asking Classic Empire for more run, pulling on even terms with Talk Logistics before that one gave way. As Leparoux went the whip to try and uncork a rally from John Oxley's champion, Irish War Cry was still finding new gears as he finished well clear of Gunnevera despite some slight bearing out in the stretch.
"I thought the favorite was going to show some speed but it looked like he didn't come out of there well and I came out of there very well, so I just kept hold of my spot where I was," Rosario said. "Actually he really kicked on again. He was in the lead and very comfortable and turning for home I asked him a little bit and he responded. I was very happy with that."
Irish War Cry hit the wire in a final time of 1:42.52 for the 1 1/16 miles. Sent off at 4-1, he returned $10.80, $4 and $2.20 across the board and now has 10 points on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard.
Talk Logistics was fourth while Cavil and Perro Rojo completed the order of finish. Shamsaan was pulled up while far back in the stretch but was able to walk off. Fact Finding and Fire for Effect were scratched.
For Classic Empire, the defeat marked his second loss in six career starts but first time he had been beaten on the square. The bay colt wheeled at the start of the Sept. 5 Hopeful Stakes (G1) and dropped rider Irad Ortiz Jr. that day. Sent off as the 1-2 favorite in the Holy Bull, he did show some resistance to load at the start of the race and was noticeably warm in the post-parade.
"He gets a little hot, but maybe hotter than normal, so I don't know," said Mark Casse, trainer of Classic Empire. "We will regroup. He had no excuse that way (in where he was positioned); none whatsoever. They kind of tried to pin him in a little bit on the first turn and Julien used a little bit of him. We had a good trip."
Irish War Cry broke his maiden at first asking at Laurel last November and improves his career earnings to $295,460. While Motion said the March 4 Fountain of Youth (G2) and $1 million Florida Derby (G1) April 1 are possible targets, he acknowledges being in the enviable position of having a horse for which the sky is currently the limit.
"I really haven't gotten beyond today," Motion said. "It will be hard enough to run back in one of them, obviously, but we'll figure it out. There's nothing quite like being involved in these 3-year-old races. It's what we all like to do. It's pretty exciting."