The star-crossed racing career of John Oxley's champion Classic Empire officially came to a close Oct. 18 when it was announced the son of Pioneerof the Nile would retire to Coolmore's Ashford Stud. A fee will be set at a later date.
Classic Empire had not raced since finishing second by a head to Cloud Computing in the May 20 Preakness Stakes (G1). The Mark Casse trainee was expected to be among the favorites for the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1), but was withdrawn from that test due to an abscess in his right front—an ailment that ultimately contributed to costing him the remainder of his multiple grade 1-winning career.
The hoof took longer than expected to fully heal and, according to Casse, led to the colt's back issues, similar to what Classic Empire experienced when he was felled by an abscess earlier in the year following his third-place run in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2). Having already missed the major 3-year-old races during the summer, time ran on out his team's hopes of having him ready for a Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) run.
"The problem is he had to come back at the top of his game to compete with the very best and we kind of felt like if he couldn't do that, what else was there out there for him to do," Casse said. "The foot took a lot longer to get right than I thought it would. He actually looks wonderful, he's traveling well, but just not enough time."
Classic Empire's quick mind was one of his greatest assets, but also became one of the biggest stumbling blocks during his nine-race career. His raw brilliance showed itself in short order, allowing him to win his first two starts including the 2016 Bashford Manor Stakes (G3). His quirkiness manifested just as obviously as he wheeled at the start of the Hopeful Stakes (G1) in September of 2016, dropping jockey Irad Oritz Jr. and ending all chance for him to make good on his overwhelming favoritism in that race.
Affectionately referred to as "Racing's Bad Boy" within his shedrow, the bay colt let his talent do the talking in the remainder of his 2-year-old campaign as he rolled to victory in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland prior to winning the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita Park last Nov. 5 en route to being a unanimous choice to receive the 2016 Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male.
Things began going sideways for Classic Empire almost as soon as his 3-year-old campaign got underway. After recovering from the abscess discovered following the Holy Bull, Classic Empire went through a couple of instances when he refused to train at Palm Meadows Training Center, prompting Casse to send the colt to Winding Oaks Farm near Ocala, Fla.—where he was broken as a baby—in an attempt to get him back on track mentally.
That gamble paid off when Classic Empire returned in April to win the Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park by a half-length. His run in the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) was another case of what might have been, when he was slammed at the start by McCraken as part of a chain reaction bumping incident, but still rallied gamely to finish fourth.
"You just have to wonder had he gotten a clean trip in the Kentucky Derby what the results would have been," Casse said. "When you look at what was thrown at him so early in the race that day, and he ran by a lot of good horses that had no excuse. I've said it all along, I still think he's the best 3-year-old in North America—of course I'm a little biased.
"It was very rewarding to have the champion 2-year-old, to win the Breeders' Cup and ... we have so many great memories with him. He put us places we've never been before and I'll never forget that. He was extremely talented."
Bred by Steven and Brandi Nicholson, Classic Empire retires with five wins from nine starts and $2,520,220 in earnings. He was purchased by Oxley for $475,000 out of the Warrendale Sales consignment to the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale.
"Classic Empire was an exceptionally talented 2-year-old," said Ashford's director of sales Charlie O'Connor. "Not only was he the champion 2-year-old but he backed it up again this year with a grade 1 win at 3. His brilliance on the track is reinforced with a pedigree full of black-type that traces back to Harlan's Holiday. We couldn't be more excited to be standing him."
Classic Empire is out of the Cat Thief mare Sambuca Classica, who is set to be offered in foal to Pioneerof the Nile at the Fasig-Tipton November sale Nov. 6.
"To me, if he can produce himself, I think any breeder will just be over the moon because he is an athlete," Casse said of Classic Empire. "He has a walk like a panther. If he can reproduce himself, he's going to be one heck of a sire."