The Main Track: Classic Empire's Revival Caps a Roller-Coaster Prep Season

Classic Empire and jockey Julien Leparoux head to the winner’s circle at Oaklawn Park after taking the $1 million Arkansas Derby. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Welcome to this week’s installment of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track.                 

Each Tuesday in this space we will spotlight the most meaningful story of the past week, detailing a story that will stand out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it will generate.

Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next Tuesday’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.

As for this week, we are looking at Classic Empire’s victory in the $1 million Arkansas Derby that brought the topsy-turvy 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands prep season full circle after a few months filled with plenty of fake news and some sad news as well.

Go back to January and Classic Empire was sitting comfortably atop the 3-year-old division. A Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and champion at two, he entered 2017 as the consensus favorite for the Kentucky Derby, a position reflected in his No. 1 ranking in the first National Thoroughbred Racing Association Top 10 3-year-old poll on Jan. 30.

Less than a week later, all of that changed when Classic Empire took the track for the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. He looked as wet and washy as he would during a morning bath and failed to fire his best shot as an odds-on 1-2 favorite. At the finish line, he was a non-threatening third, 8 ¾ lengths behind victorious Irish War Cry.

A few days later, Classic Empire was third in the NTRA poll. A foot abscess was offered as an explanation for his surprisingly weak showing, but as training issues kept him sidelined until last Saturday’s Grade 1 fixture at Oaklawn Park, his stock dropped to the point where he was ninth in the April 3 poll. Yet, as we learned on Saturday, the reports of him fizzling as a top Triple Crown candidate were indeed fake news.

More on that later.

Rewinding to the Holy Bull, Irish War Cry’s 3 ¾-length victory lifted him from No. 27 into the No. 1 spot in the Feb. 6 poll. He dropped to No. 2 for the three weeks after that, but when he returned in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 4 at Gulfstream his rollercoaster ride took an unexpected dip. Sent off as a 1.10-1 favorite after his front-running win in the Holy Bull, Irish War Cry never reached the front, fading to seventh at the wire, 21 ¾ lengths behind Gunnevera.

The immediate perception was that Irish War Cry’s Holy Bull win turned out to be fake news, and he immediately dropped to 11th in the NTRA poll. He was 15th prior to his race in the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets at Aqueduct on April 8. But in New York – where as “Old Blue Eyes” said, if you can make there, you can make it anywhere – Irish War Cry proved that beliefs he was simply fake news were, stick with me here, fake news. Irish War won the Wood convincingly by 3 ½ lengths and soared to No. 2 in the next poll.

As for Gunnevera, he was second in the NTRA poll after romping by 5 ¾ lengths in the Fountain of Youth. His next start was the Xpressbet Florida Derby at Gulfstream on April 1, and he played quite the April Fools’ Day joke on the handicappers who bet him down to a 1.10-1 favorite. Mired with post 10, Gunnevera was last early on after jockey Javier Castellano was forced to make a left turn at the break in order to save ground. He rallied to finished third, but was 6 ½ lengths behind the triumphant Always Dreaming. He currently ranks sixth in the April 17 poll.

Always Dreaming, who won the Florida Derby in his stakes debut, moved from 25th to second in the April 3 edition of a poll that has played out like an elevator going up and down in a skyscraper.

Going back to early February, McCraken moved into the No. 1 spot following his win in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on Feb 11. He stayed there for eight weeks.

In the interim, a minor injury kept McCraken out of the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby, which was won by Tapwrit, who was second in the Sam F. Davis. That March 11 victory allowed Tapwrit to ride the elevator from 15th to fifth.

Both McCraken and Tapwrit targeted the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, which seemed destined to be the year’s premier prep with Fountain of Youth runner-up Practical Joke and Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo also in the field.

Of course, that notion was more fake news. Practical Joke finished second, 8-5 favorite McCraken third, J Boys Echo fourth and Tapwrit fifth, all of them winding up behind a West Coast shipper named Irap, who just so happened to be a maiden after his seven previous starts and was dismissed at 31.30-1 odds.

Speaking of California, for a brief moment it appeared as if the year’s No. 1 Kentucky Derby prospect was going to hail from the Golden State. As the unbeaten Mastery approached the finish line in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park on March 11 en route to a powerful 6 ¾-length win, it appeared trainer Bob Baffert had yet another in a long line of sparkling Triple Crown contenders over the last 20 years. Third in the NTRA poll going into the San Felipe, Mastery seemed poised to leapfrog over McCraken and Gunnevera into the No. 1 spot thanks to his eye-opening victory. But shortly after crossing the finish line, jockey Mike Smith pulled up Mastery and hopped off him. A day later, in a somber dose of sad news, it was announced that Mastery had a condylar fracture and would miss the Triple Crown.

In Mastery’s absence, Gormley, a Grade 1 winner at two who won the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 7 and then finished fourth in the San Felipe, seized the moment and rebounded with a half-length triumph in the Santa Anita Derby. Ranked fourth in the first poll, but 17th in the April 3 poll, he’s seventh as of April 17.

At this point, it’s probably apropos to mention that in the fourth spot in Monday’s poll was Girvin, the Mr. Consistency of the prep season. With back-to-wins in the Risen Star Stakes and then the Louisiana Derby, he’s the only male in the latest Top 10 poll to have consecutive 2017 stakes victories to his credit.

Yes, the only one.

All of which brings us to Classic Empire and the Arkansas Derby, a $1 million race which served as a springboard to Triple Crown glory for another 2-year-old – a rather well-known star by the name American Pharoah.

Classic Empire (Coady Photography)

For Classic Empire, the final prep race of 2017 was a now or never matter. He came into the Arkansas Derby 21st in the Road to the Kentucky Derby point series and needed at least a fourth-place finish to crack the Top 20 and earn a spot in the field for the May 6 run for the roses at Churchill Downs.

After falling short at 1-2 odds in the Holy Bull, Classic Empire needed a surge of late money to edge past Rebel winner Malagacy and break from the gate as a slim 1.90-1 favorite in the Arkansas Derby. He also needed some racing luck in the mile and an eighth test as he was stuck between horses on the final turn, but once jockey Julien Leparoux was able to swing him to the outside, Classic Empire edged past Conquest Mo Money in the final strides to post a half-length victory for owner John Oxley and trainer Mark Casse.

“It was a tough winter, I am not going to lie,” Leparoux said. “Come January, we expected so much from him and after the Holy Bull he just went downhill from there. It was hard to see whenever we got off the wagon, but at the same time we were running out of time. Today was the last race we could get before the Derby, so it was very important for us to get in. Mark and his team did an awesome job, so the credit goes to them.”

And with that, after 11 wacky, tumultuous and utterly confusing weekends, the 3-year-old division was somehow right back where it started. Classic Empire was No. 1 again in Monday’s NTRA poll and he just might be the betting favorite in the Kentucky Derby.

Whether that’s fake news or the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we won’t know until that long-awaited evening when the sun sets on our old Kentucky home on May 6 and the 143rd Kentucky Derby offers the best explanation of what we’ve been seeing the last few months.

Start the countdown!


Here’s some of the other stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry:

Dickinson defeats Lady Eli in Jenny Wiley

Ben’s Cat finishes fifth in 11-year-old debut

Arrogate tops world rankings

Couple’s love includes working together at Keeneland

Mack creates award to honor Phipps’ commitment to equine health

Breeders’ Cup Challenge features 81 races

Record Championship meet handle for Gulfstream

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