Why Classic Empire has such a huge chance in the Kentucky Derby

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Classic Empire was back to winning ways in the Arkansas Derby. Photo: Casey Phillips/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders’ Cup

With the Arkansas Derby’s formidable pedigree as a trial for the Triple Crown races, there was much attention on last Saturday’s edition. Did the race live up to expectations? James Willoughby, who is assessing each of the Kentucky Derby preps using the tools available to him via the TRC Global Rankings algorithm, gives his verdict.

Trial number: 25 of 27
TRC trial rank: #2
Trial name: Arkansas Derby
Grade: 1
Our Grade: 1
Course: Oaklawn Park
Date: April 15, 2017
Distance: 9f
Going: Fast
Winner: Classic Empire
Winner Expected RPR: 117.5
Winner Actual RPR: 116
Winning Trainer: Mark Casse (TRC Global Ranking: #18)
Winning Jockey: Julien Leparoux (#22)
Winning Owner: John Oxley (#24)
Winning Sire: Pioneerof The Nile (#18)


Where have you been, Classic Empire? A colt presumed to feature heavily on the Road To The Kentucky Derby showed up on one of the final staging posts to Kentucky Derby.

And what a reappearance, coming off as much the best of a decent group of horses convened for a thrilling running of the Arkansas Derby. Down the back straight, the field were in such tight formation that it appeared they were busy filming a scene from Seabiscuit. And, in their midst, three back and three off the rail, things did not appear so promising for last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, especially as he had wasted a bit of energy running freely.

Consider the scene at about 1:25 of the YouTube video below. You could not be certain whether this was the Empire striking back. He was climbing a bit into the kickback, failing to attack the turn, appearing even to be thinking twice about launching a rally.

Then Classic Empire’s long-windedness kicked in, and so did his stamina, and what had looked in some doubt soon took on the appearance of the inevitable. While not quite mustering the finishing force of his owner’s Monarchos in the big one of 2001, Classic Empire was always going to get there.

Classic Empire has a huge chance at Churchill Downs. The race shape is certain to be his liking. Look at the fractions here via the Equibase chart: 22.75 – 24.17 – 24.24 – 25.27 – 12.50 (pro-rated 25.0). Classic Empire did a lot of running around the far turn into a pace that was barely yielding, especially as he was covering ground. Yet, he appeared strong at the end, which is ample testament to his powers of endurance, already seen to good effect in a championship environment last autumn.

Classic Empire produced a Racing Post Rating (RPR) of 116, which is seven pounds – or roughly four lengths – less than he earned to cap the Juvenile. Was there enough about the run of the race to suggest the difference lies in the strategic disadvantage he was at? Almost certainly yes.

Furthermore, it must be admitted that, while the early Derby trials yielded RPR figures consistently above the figures expected from history, several of the key ‘regional finals’ have not.

Consult the chart of figures and it can be seen that the Santa Anita Derby, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, and now the Rebel and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, are short of the standard that could be expected. Yet, in total, 16 of the 25 trials we have included in this series came up with higher RPR than expected. Go figure.

While short of historical par, the supporting cast here contributed to a great race. Conquest Mo Money ran his face off in second, getting over from a wide draw to dispute the lead almost throughout and clearly running himself near the point of exhaustion, given his meandering in the straight. Compare his effort to the talented fifth Malagacy, who wilted the more severely as the heat began to tell, leaving closers Lookin At Lee and Sonneteer, the latter who produced a wild finish from well out of it, to pick up the pieces.

Notwithstanding the last-named colt’s eye-catching flourish, the longstanding impression here is Classic Empire’s rekindling of the top-notch talent he showed as a juvenile.

Strictly in terms of figures, his hard achievement was a mere approximation of his best effort, and he might well be a still lazier type now than then, but, with the imperious Mastery out of the way, he is very much the one for Always Dreaming, Irish War Cry and the rest to beat in the Derby.

Read James Willoughby’s previous Derby trial analyses

1. Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity (Mastery)
2. Jerome (El Areeb)
3. Sham Stakes (Gormley)
4. Lecomte Stakes (Guest Suite)
5. Holy Bull (Irish War Cry)
6. Withers (El Areeb)
7. Robert B. Lewis (Royal Mo)
8. Swale Stakes (Favorable Outcome)
9. Sam F. Davis (McCraken)
10. San Vicente (Iliad)
11. Southwest Stakes (One Liner)
12. Risen Star (Girvin)
13. Gotham (J Boys Echo)
14. Fountain of Youth (Gunnevera)
15. San Felipe (Mastery)
16. Tampa Bay Derby (Tapwrit)
17. Rebel Stakes (Malagacy)
18. UAE Derby (Thunder Snow)
19. Sunland Derby (Hence)
20. Louisiana Derby (Girvin)
22. Wood Memorial (Irish War Cry)
23. Blue Grass (Irap)
24. Santa Anita Derby (Gormley)


View Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus

More Racing Articles

By the same author