Classic Empire and assistant trainer Norman Casse arrive at Oaklawn Park

Classic Empire and assistant trainer Norman Casse arrive at Oaklawn Park

Coady Photography

Classic Empire Aims to Regain Luster in Arkansas Derby

Champion colt makes first start since third in Holy Bull Stakes (G2).

The foot abscess. The back issue. The works that weren't. The questions. The doubt. The temptation to scrap everything and retreat to square one.

All the above have been part of Classic Empire's storyline since around the time the son of Pioneerof the Nile  cooled out following his disappointing third-place finish in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2). In a Triple Crown prep season packed with the unexpected, the star-crossed journey of the reigning juvenile champion male has been a consistent frustration, as the most talented youngster of 2016 hasn't been able to get it together this season.

As the series of minor setbacks formed a small mountain, trainer Mark Casse threw one last Hail Mary pass and shipped John Oxley's colt to the peaceful surroundings of Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla., in hopes of getting him right there. What the Canadian Hall of Fame conditioner saw in recent weeks was enough for him to put Classic Empire on the road to Oaklawn Park for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1). 

And angst-ridden as his connections have been over his missteps, the fact that no rival has gotten it together enough to definitively snatch the title of divisional leader off Classic Empire's plate has proven a salve in its own right.

"It kind of gives you a little bit of relief, because you feel like nothing is going as planned for anybody," Casse said. "They can't single us out and say 'It hasn't worked for them,' because it's not working for anybody. It's nuts. I can't remember it (ever) being like this."

Thanks to lack of the clarity on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire could bring the hype back to him should the 8-5 morning-line favorite prevail in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby against 11 others April 15, including Rebel Stakes (G2) winner Malagacy.

If one had asked Casse in mid-March if the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner would even be in position to get his luster back with a good prep, the trainer might have been tight-lipped. Fully recovered physically from the foot abscess that manifested days after the Holy Bull and some minor back issues he was treated for after he refused to break off for a planned workout at Palm Meadows Training Center March 3, Classic Empire had another aborted work March 19 for reasons none of his connections could pinpoint.

In taking the colt to Winding Oaks Farm, Casse wanted to see if a change in scenery might trigger some positive vibes for the multiple grade 1 winner. Needing everything to go perfect in order to make the first Saturday in May with his quirky protégé, Casse finally had things fall into place in getting four timed workouts into Classic Empire, the latest being an easy half-mile April 8.

ANGST: Classic Empire to Arkansas Derby After Impressive Work

"We had come to a point where I tried to be really patient and said, 'OK, OK, well, we still have plenty of time.' When I sent him back to Ocala, I said, 'Look, either it works now or we're going to just stop, regroup, and worry about the summer,''' Casse said. "So, at (that) point, we went back to Ocala. We needed everything to go right, and knock on wood, luckily it has.

"The good news is he's doing great. I talked to (farm manager) Mitch Downs and ... he said, as long as he's had (Classic Empire) he's never seen him feeling as good as he is now."

While Classic Empire has been trying to get his mind and body right, his stock continues to be flattered by the efforts of those he has already beaten.

Gunnevera, fifth to Classic Empire in last October's Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1), went on to take the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) March 4, while Gormley, seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, now stands as the leading West Coast contender after his victory in the April 8 Santa Anita Derby (G1).

Also aiding Classic Empire's cause is the fact that most all those who surged to the front of the 3-year-old male ranks have had their own setbacks at some point. Gunnevera was most recently third in the Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1), the brilliant Mastery  suffered a condylar fracture after his dominating win in the San Felipe Stakes (G2), and previously unbeaten McCraken suffered his first loss when he ran third to maiden Irap in the April 8 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2)

"I was talking to (son and top assistant) Norman (Casse) and he said we're not even in the top 20 yet (on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard)," Mark Casse said "He said, 'If (Classic Empire) doesn't pick up any points this weekend, he's not even in the Derby.' But we both agree if he doesn't pick up any points, he doesn't deserve to be in the Derby."

How fit Classic Empire is heading into the Arkansas Derby will be a question mark until he hits the lane. Malagacy, on the other hand, will be making his fourth start this year as he looks to snag the 100 Derby qualifying points the winner will earn Saturday.

The chestnut son of Shackleford  is part of the later-blooming, Todd Pletcher-trained army that stormed onto the Triple Crown scene. Unraced as a juvenile, Malagacy broke his maiden by 15 lengths in his debut going 5 1/2 furlongs at Gulfstream Park Jan. 4 and followed that run with a seven-length win next time out over 6 1/2 furlongs.

He aced his first two-turn test when he captured the Rebel by two lengths but added distance against better class will be his biggest question.

WINCZE HUGHES: Malagacy Flaunts His Talent in Rebel Stakes

"He handled the stretch out his first time very well. Now we need more distance again, and continue to prove that a mile and an eighth and beyond is within his range," Pletcher said. "We feel like it is, based on the way he handled the 1 1/16 miles, (and) the way he's shown he's very tractable, very rateable. But when you're trying to do something you've never done before, you're hoping they step up with each increment you're asking them to take on."

The Steve Asmussen-trained Untrapped has never finished worse than third in five prior starts and was most recently third in the Rebel. The son of Trappe Shot  picks up Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and also adds blinkers.

Entries: Arkansas Derby (G1)

Oaklawn Park, Saturday, April 15, 2017, Race 11

  • Grade I
  • 1 1/8m
  • Dirt
  • $1,000,000
  • 3 yo
  • 6:18 PM (local)
PPHorseJockeyWgtTrainerM/L
11Rockin Rudy (IA)Keeneland Sales GraduateMario Gutierrez118Doug F. O'Neill12/1
22Classic Empire (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateJulien R. Leparoux122Mark E. Casse8/5
33Silver Dust (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateCorey J. Lanerie118Randy L. Morse20/1
44Petrov (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateRicardo Santana, Jr.118Ron Moquett12/1
55Grandpa's Dream (KY)Alex L. Canchari118Chris A. Hartman30/1
66Lookin At Lee (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateLuis Contreras122Steven M. Asmussen15/1
77Sonneteer (KY)Kent J. Desormeaux118J. Keith Desormeaux15/1
88Rowdy the Warrior (OK)Luis S. Quinonez118Donnie K. Von Hemel30/1
99Untrapped (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateMike E. Smith118Steven M. Asmussen6/1
1010One Dreamy Dude (FL)Geovanni Franco118Jack C. Van Berg50/1
1111Conquest Mo Money (NY)Keeneland Sales GraduateJorge Carreno122Miguel L. Hernandez15/1
1212Malagacy (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateJavier Castellano122Todd A. Pletcher2/1