Classic Empire clinches Kentucky Derby spot with Oaklawn win

Fans pack the grandstand at Keeneland every spring

Leparoux said he never lost faith in the colt, who he has ridden in all of his seven career starts except for the Hopeful at Saratoga Race Course, when Classic Empire veered sharply out of the gate and dumped jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.

Classic Empire snuck out a comeback win at the finish line. It is hard to believe, but with the Florida Derby, Blue Grass Stakes and Wood Memorial already in the rear view mirror, the Arkansas Derby will cap off the Grade 1 stakes schedule before the best horses in America head to Louisville, Kentucky for the annual Kentucky Derby.

He ended up being the 9-5 favorite Saturday, in front of an estimated crowd of 62,500 at Oaklawn Park, and ran a ideal race, settling close to the leaders in a pack of seven, never more than 3 lengths behind.

In no ways was Saturday's Grade 1 Arkansas Derby easy, but in the end, the champ came through with flying colors, scoring a popular and hard-earned half-length victory in front of a large crowd at Oaklawn Park.

Saturday's card is closing day of the 2017 racing season at Oaklawn.

Classic Empire has always been his own worst enemy.

Eclipse Awards voters named the son of Pioneerof the Nile as the champion 2-year-old male, mostly because of two Grade I stakes victories, including one in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile. "I just needed to get there".

Casse welcomes the added distance for Classic Empire, the champion 2-year-old male of 2016 who shares the same sire as Triple Crown victor American Pharoah.

His refusal to go through with a planned workout a few weeks later raised more flags. Maybe. But if you don't accept the implausible scenario that all of them took a big step forward, then you can project Classic Empire managing a winning Beyer somewhere in the mediocre neighborhood of the low 90s.

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Rebel Stakes victor Malagacy tracked just ahead of the champion as that top pack bunched up, and when that one put in his bid for the lead around the final turn, Leparoux tipped Classic Empire to the far outside and called upon the form that rattled off wins in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity and Bashford Manor Stakes previous year in addition to their Breeders' Cup triumph. He ranks second in the Road to the Derby standings with 132 and is a lock to make the expected Derby field of 20 on May 6.

"He just has so much ability", said Casse. "What I feel good about is we were up front, we were telling everyone the truth of what was going on and so many people were like 'There is no way he will be ready.' But the key to it all is he's a really, really, really good horse".

Now that he has the colt back on track, the real work begins for Casse in getting Classic Empire set for the first leg of the Triple Crown.

"He ran 100 percent today", Leparoux said.

Winning rider Julien Leparoux added: "He wasn't 100 per cent today, so I was expecting him to be a little exhausted".

Conquest Mo Money held for second with Lookin At Lee coming on late to finish third by half a length from Sonneteer. The #4, Petrov, had been showing speed but his early speed figures were a bit muted last month in the Rebel Stakes.

Whitmore continued to solidify his status as the top sprinter in North America by winning the Count Fleet by 3 3/4 lengths on the Arkansas Derby undercard.

I get the feeling that we haven't seen the best that Silver Dust has to offer, but this could be the day that he puts it all together with a big run. "That thought went through my head about the eighth pole. He had every right to get exhausted in the last part of it, but he kept running". Conquest Mo Money broke from the 12 post in that race, ran widest of all around the first turn, sat wide mid-pack along the backstretch and made a move to get the lead while still wide on the turn for home. He finished second in the Grade III Sunland Derby on March 26.

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