John Clay

Classic Empire strikes back and could be Kentucky Derby favorite

Classic Empire and jockey Julien R. Leparoux win the Arkansas Derby on Saturday, April 15 2017, at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. The 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner is now second in the point standings for the 2017 Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs in Louisville.
Classic Empire and jockey Julien R. Leparoux win the Arkansas Derby on Saturday, April 15 2017, at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. The 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner is now second in the point standings for the 2017 Kentucky Derby on May 6 at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Oaklawn Park/Associated Press

The Kentucky Derby is less than three weeks away and we’ve hit the reset button.

Again.

Welcome back, Classic Empire. We missed you. At least we missed the classic version of Classic Empire, the talented son of Pioneerof the Nile who won the 2016 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita and was crowned 2- year-old champion.

This year was a much different and baffling story, however. There was Classic Empire’s dull third-place run in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream in February. There was his refusal to work in the mornings. There was a foot abscess and a back problem. There was his trip to Winding Oaks Farm near Ocala, Fla., where Classic Empire settled down and turned in three solid workouts.

Then there was Saturday’s dramatic return to form at Oaklawn Park. Forced to hold back at the start, mired in traffic throughout the backstretch, then forced wide at the turn for home, Classic Empire shot down the stretch to nip Conquest Mo Money by a half length and win the Arkansas Derby.

“And just like that, the bad boy is back,” proclaimed Classic Empire’s Twitter account.

And just like that, John Oxley’s 3-year-old catapulted to second place in the Kentucky Derby point standings and possibly the top of the morning-line favorite list for the 143rd running of the world’s greatest race on the first Saturday in May.

Not that all mysteries were solved on Saturday. Is one race enough to convince skeptics Empire is back? Did he expend too much energy navigating the 12-horse field in Arkansas to have anything left in the tank for Churchill Downs?

Actually, Classic Empire’s story mimics those of so many of this year’s top Kentucky Derby contenders. Step one, impressively winning a Derby prep. Step two, throw in a deflating dud next time out. Step three, return to the fundamentals. Step four, execute a comeback.

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Look at Irish War Cry, who beat Classic Empire in the Holy Bull. His next race, Irish War Cry didn’t bother to show up, finishing seventh in the Fountain of Youth. Trainer Graham Motion responded by returning Irish War Cry to Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland where the colt could relax and rediscover his old self. Worked like a charm. Irish War Cry bounced back with a big win in the Wood Memorial.

Look at Gormley, considered best of the surprisingly unimpressive West. Trained by John Shirreffs and owned by Jerry and Ann Moss — connections for Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo and the legendary Zenyatta — Gormley won the Sham Stakes before finishing fourth in the San Felipe. He then bounced back to win the Santa Anita Derby.

Then there’s McCraken, who hopes to make his comeback on Kentucky Derby day. After winning the Sam F. Davis to go 4-for-4 lifetime, he missed the Tampa Bay Derby because of a minor ankle problem. The lack of fitness showed in his third-place finish in Keeneland’s Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. He could be ready to roll at Churchill.

Next question: Will the Louisiana Derby and Florida Derby winners bounce? Those would be Girvin and Always Dreaming, respectively.

Girvin sits atop the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 150 points. Trained by 32-year-old Joe Sharp and owned by 38-year-old Brad Grady, he’s coming off back-to-back wins in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. His sire, Tale of Ekati, was more of a sprinter, however. Can Girvin get the distance?

Kentucky Derby contenders

Meanwhile, of all the final major prep winners, none was more impressive than Always Dreaming. Trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by Brooklyn Boyz Stables, the son of Bodemeister ran away with the Florida Derby by 5 lengths in his stakes debut. But does he have enough seasoning?

Truth be told, even in a 20-horse field, the Kentucky Derby will come down to Classic Empire.

“He just has so much ability,” Casse said on Saturday.

Is he healthy? Is he happy? If so, on May 6, Classic Empire is the one to beat.

Kentucky Derby leaderboard

Field limited to 20 horses

Rank

Horse

Points

1

Girvin

150

2

Classic Empire

132

3

Gormley

125

4

Irap

113

5

Irish War Cry

110

6

Thunder Snow

100

7

Always Dreaming

100

8

Gunnevera

84

9

Practical Joke

74

10

J Boys Echo

63

11

State of Honor

62

12

Tapwrit

54

13

Malagacy

50

14

Hence

50

15

Fast and Accurate

50

16

McCraken

40

17

Battle of Midway

40

18

Patch

40

19

Battalion Runner

40

20

Cloud Computing

40

21

Untrapped

34

22

Lookin At Lee

32

23

Sonneteer

30

24

Royal Mo

30

25

Local Hero

30

Kentucky Derby prep races

Date

Race

Track

Points

Winner

9/17/16

Iroquois

Churchill Downs

10

Not This Time

10/1/16

FrontRunner

Belmont Park

10

Gormley

10/8/16

Champagne

Belmont Park

10

Practical Joke

10/8/16

Breeders' Futurity

Keeneland

10

Classic Empire

11/5/16

Breeders' Cup Juvenile

Santa Anita Park

20

Classic Empire

11/19/16

Delta Downs Jackpot

Delta Downs

10

Gunnevera

11/26/16

Remsen

Aqueduct

10

Mo Town

11/26/16

Kentucky Jockey Club

Churchill Downs

10

McCraken

11/26/16

Cattleya Sho*

Tokyo Racecourse

40

Mont Saint Legame

12/10/16

Los Alamitos Futurity

Los Alamitos

10

Mastery

1/2/17

Jerome

Aqueduct

10

El Areeb

1/7/17

Sham

Santa Anita Park

10

Gormley

1/16/17

Smarty Jones

Oaklawn Park

10

Uncontested

1/21/17

Lecomte

Fair Grounds

10

Guest Suite

2/4/17

Withers

Aqueduct

10

El Areeb

2/4/17

Holy Bull

Gulfstream Park

10

Irish War Cry

2/4/17

Robert B. Lewis

Santa Anita Park

10

Royal Mo

2/11/17

Sam F. Davis

Tampa Bay Downs

10

McCraken

2/18/17

El Camino Real Derby

Golden Gate Fields

10

Zakaroff

2/19/17

Hyacinth*

Tokyo Racecourse

50

Epicharis

2/20/17

Southwest

Oaklawn Park

10

One Liner

2/25/17

Risen Star

Fair Grounds

50

Girvin

3/4/17

Fountain of Youth

Gulfstream Park

50

Gunnevera

3/4/17

Gotham

Aqueduct

50

J Boys Echo

3/11/17

Tampa Bay Derby

Tampa Bay Downs

50

Tapwrit

3/11/17

San Felipe

Santa Anita Park

50

Mastery

3/18/17

Rebel

Oaklawn Park

50

Malagacy

3/25/17

UAE Derby

Meydan Racecourse

100

Thunder Snow

3/25/17

Spiral

Turfway Park

50

Fast and Accurate

3/25/17

Sunland Derby

Sunland Park

50

Hence

4/1/17

Florida Derby

Gulfstream Park

100

Always Dreaming

4/1/17

Louisiana Derby

Fair Grounds

100

Girvin

4/8/17

Wood Memorial

Aqueduct

100

Irish War Cry

4/8/17

Blue Grass

Keeneland

100

Irap

4/8/17

Santa Anita Derby

Santa Anita Park

100

Gormley

4/15/17

Arkansas Derby

Oaklawn Park

100

Classic Empire

4/15/17

Lexington

Keeneland

10

Senior Investment

* Japan Road to Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby

When: Saturday, May 6

Post time: 6:34 p.m.

TV: NBC-18

Derby points leaders

150: Girvin

132: Classic Empire

125: Gormley

113: Irap

110: Irish War Cry

100: Thunder Snow, Always Dreaming

84: Gunnevera

74: Practical Joke

63: J Boys Echo

62: State of Honor

54: Tapwrit

50: Malagacy, Hence, Fast and Accurate

40: McCraken, Battle of Midway, Patch, Battalion Runner, Cloud Computing

34: Untrapped

32: Lookin At Lee

30: Sonneteer, Royal Mo, Local Hero

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