2023 Kentucky Derby Hopeful Snapshots: Angel of Empire

Angel of Empire, with Luis Saez in the saddle, rallied to win the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds Feb. 18 and earn 50 qualifying points for the 2023 Kentucky Derby. (Lou Hodges, Jr. /Hodges Photography)

Welcome to 2023 Kentucky Derby Prospect Snapshots, where we’ll take a look each week at a recent winner on the Triple Crown trail, usually from the Road to the Kentucky Derby schedule from which the racehorses earn points toward qualifying.

The 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve will be held May 6, 2023, at Churchill Downs.

This week, we’ll take a closer look at Angel of Empire, winner of the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Lincoln and Lamarque Crescent City Ford on Feb. 18 at Fair Grounds.

Angel of Empire earned 50 points toward qualifying for the 2023 Kentucky Derby with the Risen Star win and moved into first place on the latest Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 54 total points.

angel of empire

Bay Colt

Sire (father): Classic Empire

Dam (mother): Armony’s Angel, by To Honor and Serve

Owners: Albaugh Family Stable

Breeders: Forgotten Land Investment Inc and Black Diamond Equine Corp (Pa.)

Trainer: Brad Cox

Racing Résumé: Angel of Empire won a pair of races at Horseshoe Indianapolis as a 2-year-old, victories that bookended an unplaced finish on the grass at Kentucky Downs. He was much the best, albeit against soft competition, in those two dirt races in winning his debut by 1 ½ lengths and his third start by 6 ¼ lengths, both at one mile.

A significant class challenge came in his 3-year-old debut Jan. 1 when he was entered in the Smarty Jones Stakes by trainer Brad Cox, and he easily outran his 18.10-1 odds that day in a runner-up finish to stablemate Victory Formation that gave his connections reason for optimism.

The Risen Star Stakes Feb. 18 at Fair Grounds came next and the 1 1/8 miles proved right in the Classic Empire colt’s wheelhouse as he rallied from five wide on the far turn and passed six horses in the final three-eighths of a mile to win by a length from Sun Thunder at 13.70-1 odds. He completed his final eighth of a mile in 12.96 seconds according to the Equibase chart and his final three-eighths in about 38.40 seconds, which is pretty solid for the distance but not spectacular. The main takeaway after the Risen Star was the longer the race, the better for Angel of Empire.

“Physically he looks like he will run all day, which is what we have been thinking since last summer,” Cox said “He's a horse that the farther they go, he’ll keep coming. He had some pace to run into and it worked out well.”

Speed Figures: For analyzing speed figures, let’s remove the turf race and look at the progression in Angel of Empire’s dirt races. He went from a 58 to an 80 Equibase Speed Figure for his second win as a 2-year-old at Horseshoe Indianapolis. He then earned a 92 for the Smarty Jones runner-up finish and a career-top 96 Equibase Speed Figure for the Risen Star. The progression is similar using Beyer Speed Figures: 58-70-85-89.

While not quite fast enough to win a race like the Kentucky Derby at this point, Angel of Empire is on an encouraging upward trajectory.

Running Style: Quite a few of the key players on the 2023 Kentucky Derby trail thus far, including Angel of Empire,  are 3-year-olds whose preference is to drop back off the pace and make one sustained run. While closers like last year’s 80.80-1 upset winner Rich Strike can and do win the Derby, in recent years tactical speed has become more and more important in the 20-horse field for the first jewel of the Triple Crown. Stalkers and closers need a bit of racing luck as far as pace and traffic to win on the first Saturday in May and, of course, a very good ride.

Brad Cox (Eclipse Sportswire)

Connections: Brad Cox trains Angel of Empire for Albaugh Family Stables, the Des Moines, Iowa-based racing operation of Jason Loutsch and Dennis Albaugh, a self-made billionaire who mortgaged his home to start his own pesticide company Albaugh Inc. Albaugh Family Stables has won Grade 1 races with Brody’s Cause, Free Drop Billy. and Juju’s Map. Brody’s Cause was the operation’s best result (seventh in 2016) from three Kentucky Derby starters. Albaugh Family Stables also raced recent graded stakes winners Not This Time and Dennis' Moment, was a co-owner of Grade 2 winner Thousand Words, and campaigns fellow 2023 Derby hopeful Jace's Road in partnership with West Point Thoroughbreds. Read more about Albaugh Family Stables' plans for Angel of Empire in this feature.

Cox won the 2020 and 2021 Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer and boasts a powerful group targeting the 2023 Derby that includes Withers Stakes winner Hit Show, Lecomte Stakes winner Instant Coffee, Smarty Jones Stakes winner Victory Formation, Jace’s Road, Remington Springboard Mile runner-up Giant Mischief, and the promising Verifying. Cox won the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve with Mandaloun following the disqualification of Medina Spirit and the 2021 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets with Essential Quality. Cox trained 2021 Horse of the Year Knicks Go.

Luis Saez was he fourth rider in five starts for Angel of Empire. Saez also won the Sam F. Davis Stakes on Feb. 11 with Litigate and the Lecomte Stakes Jan. 21 on Instant Coffee. Saez won the 2021 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets for Cox to earn his lone win to date in a U.S. Triple Crown race.

Pedigree Notes: Angel of Empire is from the second crop of 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and champion 2-year-old male Classic Empire, winner of the Arkansas Derby as a 3-year-old in 2017 and runner-up in that year’s Preakness Stakes. His promising first crop included 2022 George E. Mitchell Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and Indiana Oaks winner Interstatedaydream, recent Royal Delta Stakes winner Classy Edition, and graded stakes winner Morello.  

Angel of Empire was produced by the To Honor and Serve mare Armony’s Angel; his grandam (maternal grandmother) was winning sprinter Seeinsbelieven, by Carson City, who produced graded stakes-winning miler Conquest Big E and stakes-winning miler Aquapazza. One interesting note is that this family also is responsible for Angel of Empire’s stablemate Victory Formation, the aforementioned Smarty Jones Stakes winner.

While there is enough stamina here to be reasonably confident that Angel of Empire can excel at classic distances, you must also trust what the eye test revealed in the Risen Star and what his connections have said about distance to fully buy into him as a 1 ¼-mile horse.

Derby Potential: Brad Cox has a loaded hand for the 2023 Kentucky Derby and Angel of Empire is a key card. He plans to give this talented Classic Empire colt one more prep race, and that seems like the right call even though he very likely has plenty of points to qualify for the Derby as it stands today with 54.

Angel of Empire is trending the right way for a 3-year-old and needs to take another small step forward in his final pre-Derby test. That progression seems more manageable than having to make a giant leap if he went straight to the first jewel of the Triple Crown off of 11 weeks of rest.

There is plenty of time to get one more good race into Angel of Empire and still give him four or five weeks rest before the Kentucky Derby. If he continues his progress and maturation and runs well in that prep race, Angel of Empire should be one of the leading candidates for the Kentucky Derby May 6.

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