Classic Empire could be talented enough to win the Kentucky Derby.
But he might need to run a big race in Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby just to get there.
Classic Empire won four of five races as a 2-year-old, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and entered 2017 as the front-runner on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
Since then, the son of Pioneerof the Nile has raced just once, finishing third in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 4. Classic Empire has been limited in the months since by a foot abscess, back problems and, reportedly, a refusal to work out.
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Classic Empire ranks No. 21 on the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard with 32 points. The Kentucky Derby is limited to the top 20. The Arkansas Derby, which goes off at 7:18 p.m. CDT at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, delivers 100 points to the winner, 40 for second place, 20 for third and 10 for fourth.
“Whatever happens, happens,” assistant trainer Norman Casse, the son of the colt’s trainer, Mark Casse, said in a news release. “Hopefully, best-case scenario, he runs a bang-up race, gets some fitness, gets enough points and then we can feel really comfortable that he will be ready for the Derby.”
John Oxley’s champion 2-year-old male is the 8-5 favorite in a field of 12 for the 1 1/8 -mile, Grade I race.
Norman Casse likes that Classic Empire will start from the No. 2 post.
“He’ll have a good forward position going into the first turn, and the rest is up to (jockey) Julien (Leparoux).”
Leparoux won last Saturday’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland aboard Irap and could be forced to decide between the two for the Kentucky Derby.
Classic Empire’s top challenger is 2-1 second choice Malagacy. The Todd Pletcher trainee has won all three of his career starts, most recently the Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 18.
“It’s kind of been just, you know, a steady stream of maintenance work since then, trying to emphasize stretching him out in distance a little bit, and he seems to have handled everything we asked of him so far,” Pletcher said. “We’ve been waiting for the Arkansas Derby since the Rebel, and knock on wood, everything’s gone according to plan.”
The top six finishers from the Rebel will run in the Arkansas Derby. Joining Malagacy are Sonneteer (15-1 Saturday), Untrapped (6-1), Petrov (12-1), Silver Dust (20-1) and Lookin At Lee (15-1).
What: Kentucky Derby prep race
Where: Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark.
Post time: 7:18 p.m. EDT
Purse: $1 million (Grade 1)
Distance: 1 1/8 miles
Derby points: 100-40-20-10
Favorite: Classic Empire (8-5)
Arkansas Derby field with morning-line odds
Lookin At Lee
Rowdy the Warrior
Donnie Von Hemel
One Dreamy Dude
Jack Van Berg
Conquest Mo Money