Champion Classic Empire Returns in Arkansas Derby with Much to Prove

MalagacyGallopsArkyDerby

Malagacy prepares for his encounter with Classic Empire and 10 others in Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (photo by Robin Buchanan).

Just three weeks remain between now and the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby (GI) at Churchill Downs and a field of 12, many of which have their connections scrambling to earn enough points to make the starting gate for the Run for the Roses, has been entered for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (GI) at Oaklawn Park.

Two years ago, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah used the Hot Springs Derby prep as a springboard to racing immortality and it remains to be seen if any of the sophomores set to vie for the 100 points on Saturday can fill his enormous racing plates.

Even though the Arkansas Derby has only produced six Kentucky Derby winners overall, it’s been a productive race for runners pointed toward the Triple Crown for quite some time. In addition to American Pharoah, Super Saver, Smarty Jones, Grindstone, Lil E. Tee and Sunny’s Halo won the Arkansas Derby in their last race before capturing the roses, while some other big-time names have taken the southern path to Triple Crown race success, including Elocutionist, Temperence Hill, Tank’s Prospect, Pine Bluff, Victory Gallop and Afleet Alex, not to mention a half-dozen other classic-placed runners in the more recent history of the race.

The weather for the Hot Springs area on Saturday is expected to be humid and warm, with highs reaching the upper 70s. It’s reasonable to expect a dry track by post time for the $1 million feature. The Arkansas Derby, the main event for Oaklawn’s Racing Festival of the South, has been carded as the day’s 11th with a post time of 6:18 CT.

All of the pre-race attention has fallen on the return of juvenile champion Classic Empire vs. Rebel Stakes (GII) winner Malagacy and rightfully so, as, at least on paper, the pair seem to be heads and shoulders above their rivals. Classic Empire, unraced since a disappointing third-place finish in the Feb. 4 Holy Bull Stakes (GIII) is back in action after battling a foot abscess, a bad back and some temperamental behavior in the mornings when he refused to breeze for trainer Mark Casse and jockey Julien Leparoux on at least two occasions. Now apparently back in good mental and physical health, he faces an improving Malagacy over a track he’s never trained or raced over.

Undefeated Malagacy showed up a little late to the Triple Crown party, but, when he did, he announced his presence like he was the guest of honor, romping by 15 lengths in his Jan. 4 debut at 5 ½ furlongs in the slop and then following it up with a seven-length allowance win at 6 ½ furlongs before winning the Rebel. The chestnut son of Shackelford has done everything right, even in the mornings, for trainer Todd Pletcher and the Sumaya US Stable and his pedigree suggests he should handle the stretch-out just fine. His last race was a bit of a regression, numbers-wise, but it’s not hard to understand considering how powerful his first two starts were. The outermost post position isn’t ideal for this colt, who seems to prefer to be up on the engine or right behind it, but he’s in the best hands possible for his preferred trip with Eclipse Award winner Javier Castellano aboard.

If John Oxley’s Classic Empire returns to anywhere near the form he showed as a juvenile he’s going to be tough to beat here. Before the Holy Bull, the son of Pioneerof the Nile didn’t miss a beat, but since then it seems like he’s skipped every beat entirely. Foot trouble, back trouble and obstreperous behavior prompted his connections to send him to a quieter spot at Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, far away from their winter base of Palm Meadows. Apparently they’ve gotten his head right and now make a last-ditch effort to get him in the Derby starting gate. At his best, his numbers are huge (his performance in the BC Juvenile was tremendous) and he seems to have some tactical capability. He may be behind the eight ball in fitness with the missed training, workouts and races, but the reality is he’d only need to show most of his old form to be a factor. He will break from post position two under Leparoux and a clean, traffic-free trip may be all he needs.

ClassicEmpireSchoolingArkyDerby

Classic Empire (photo by Robin Buchanan).

The maiden Sonneteer was impressive when finishing second in the Rebel last out and trainer Keith Desormeaux rarely, if ever, runs a horse where he doesn’t belong. We were all reminded last week when Irap won the Blue Grass Stakes (GII) at Keeneland that, sometimes, good maidens belong in graded stakes and this may be the case for Sonneteer here. The Calument Farm-bred and owned son of Midnight Lute is a late runner who will get the pace to run at from way back and the conditioner brings in the services of his Hall of Fame jockey brother Kent Desormeaux to help assure a nice, traffic-free trip. He shipped home to prep for this race at Santa Anita, logging a nice bullet six furlongs on Sunday in 1:13, before catching his flight back to Hot Springs on Tuesday. At a price, this pretty consistent one deserves to be on any exotics ticket.

ArkansasDerbyOddsUntrapped was right behind Sonneteer at the wire in the Rebel last out after a wide trip. Big money rider Mike Smith picks up the mount for trainer Steve Asmussen, which isn’t a typical team, but both Hall of Famers know how to make it to the winner’s circle. Untrapped will wear blinkers for the first time, so expect him to show a little more speed and engage earlier than he has in the past.

Petrov was part of the Rebel’s blanket finish for second, third and fourth and settled for the latter. He hasn’t won in four starts since breaking his maiden at Churchill last November, but he has three seconds in stakes company and is consistently right there at the finish. He needs to finally show what he’s made of to win here and earn his right to make the Derby gate. He’s a stalker who will get a decent pace to follow and the son of Flatter may just have found a good spot. Ricardo Santana Jr. rides for trainer Ron Moquett and the pair will break from post four.

Lookin at Lee is another one who hasn’t won in a while but has shown consistency in finishing well in stakes company. He’s Asmussen’s other runner and picks up the services of Luis Contreras since his regular rider has chosen to ride another. He’ll be rolling late from the back of the pack and if he gets his pace and clear running room, he could be dangerous.

The Randy Morse-trained Silver Dust is fairly lightly raced and after breaking his maiden at Churchill by daylight last year, hasn’t shown a ton in two graded stakes starts here at Oakalawn since. He’s been working well since his last and has been improving, numbers-wise, with each start so it’s hard to fault his connections for rolling the dice one last time in here. He adds blinkers, so expect him to be closer to the early pace under jockey Corey Lanerie.

Conquest Mo Money was second to Hence in the Sunland Park Derby (GIII) last out, a race that saw Blue Grass Stakes winner Irap finish fourth. Anything is possible but sometimes they seem more unlikely — like a win for this one here. Chances are the field won’t fall apart like the Blue Grass one did.

Grandpa’s Dream faces winners for the first time in a very, very ambitious spot. Hard to imagine he’ll be much of a factor here.

What would a Triple Crown prep be without a Reddam Racing/Doug O’Neill runner? Here they send out stakes-placed Rockin Rudy, who breaks closest to the rail under Mario Gutierrez. The $100,000 son of Midshipman will be up on the lead from the break and doing all he can to keep his leading rivals at bay down the lane. Tough spot to make a graded stakes debut, especially since he’s been sprinting on Santa Anita’s downhill turf course in his last two, but whenever we doubt O’Neill he schools us with runners like Irap.

Rowdy the Warrior is restricted stakes-placed, but hasn’t been able to show much in graded stakes company. Seems likely to repeat that kind of performance here.

One Dreamy Dude is a very different maiden than Sonneteer and probably needs to get back to maiden company to expect a win.

Margaret Ransom
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters, Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.

After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager. She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several race horse retirement organizations, including CARMA.

Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull as her favorite horse of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, three Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.