02/15/2017 1:26PM

Derby Watch: Classic Empire remains on top

Barbara D. Livingston
Classic Empire opens as the 5-1 favorite on Derby Watch despite his third-place finish in the Holy Bull.

From the time the horses crossed the wire in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile until the Holy Bull was run on Feb. 4, Classic Empire, last year’s champion 2-year-old male, was the acknowledged favorite for the Kentucky Derby on May 6. But his third-place finish in the Holy Bull has left the Derby scene as muddy and roiling as the Ohio River after a springtime storm, with the likes of Irish War Cry and McCraken ascending in the standings.

Yet for the inaugural Derby Watch top 20, Classic Empire remains the favorite on the Derby future line produced by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form’s national handicapper. Classic Empire’s terrific 2-year-old form, combined with a foot issue that came to the fore days after the Holy Bull, combined to keep him as the favorite – for now.

:: DERBY WATCH: Top 20 list | Kentucky Derby: Who's hot, who's not

Classic Empire is 5-1, with the unbeaten McCraken at 6-1, and Irish War Cry – the Holy Bull winner – at 8-1. There is the very real possibility that Classic Empire and Irish War Cry will meet again in the Grade 2, $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 4.

“We’re flirting with the Fountain of Youth,” Mark Casse, the trainer of Classic Empire, said earlier this week. “If not that, I don’t know what we’d do. He’ll breeze this weekend or early next week and then we’ll know a little more.”

Casse believes gravel that worked its way out of Classic Empire’s right front foot a couple of days after the Holy Bull was responsible for the colt’s performance. He was washy before the race and reluctant to load.

“Looking back, things make more sense,” Casse said. “I’m not one for excuses, but that’s a pretty good one.”

Casse said Classic Empire was out of sorts from the time he was loaded onto the van to make the 45-minute drive from the Palm Meadows training center to Gulfstream Park the day of the race. To eliminate shipping problems as being one of the issues in the Fountain of Youth, Casse said Classic Empire would be sent to Gulfstream a few days in front of the race.

“He’s shipped everywhere and it’s never been a problem, but he lost it on the van, so, yes, we’ll ship early,” Casse said.

Classic Empire has had behavioral problems. Recall that he took a right turn leaving the gate in the Hopeful Stakes last summer at Saratoga and dropped jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., who was subbing that day for the injured Julien Leparoux, his regular rider.

“He’s a handful,” Casse said.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays, and analysis

The Fountain of Youth has the potential to be the best race of the prep season to date this year. In addition to Classic Empire and Irish War Cry, others pointing to the race include Gunnevera, the Holy Bull runner-up; and Three Rules, second in the Swale Stakes. All four are members of the Derby Watch top 20.

Those four all are on a schedule that would give them three preps this year before the Kentucky Derby. McCraken is on a similar schedule. He is slated to return to Tampa Bay Downs, where he won the Sam F. Davis last Saturday, for the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 11.

Ian Wilkes, the trainer of McCraken, has been an integral part of two prior Derby winners. He was the exercise rider of Unbridled and the assistant trainer of Street Sense, both trained by Carl Nafzger. Street Sense had just two preps before the Derby in 2007. Wilkes said McCraken would benefit by having an extra race, in part because his 2-year-old campaign was less extensive than that of Street Sense.

“Street Sense raced five times as a 2-year-old, so he didn’t need as much before Derby,” Wilkes said earlier this year. “McCraken raced three times at 2.”

Street Sense made his first start at 3 in the Tampa Bay Derby. Wilkes chose the Tampa route for McCraken in part because he believes McCraken’s closing style is ill-suited to Gulfstream. Wilkes was concerned McCraken would have to be taken out of his comfort level to stay closer to the front over that track. He said he didn’t want to “gut the horse” in his first race back.

The brilliant filly Unique Bella likely would be considered one of the Derby favorites if she was headed in that direction, but trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said he doesn’t want to go that route, and said he’s getting no pressure to run in the Derby from her owner, the Don Alberto Stable of Liliana Solari and her son Carlos Heller. But Unique Bella was nominated for $600 to the Triple Crown, whereas last year Hollendorfer’s filly Songbird – owned by Rick Porter – wasn’t even nominated.

“I just covered my bases this year,” Hollendorfer said. “The difference last year was that Mr. Porter specifically said not to nominate.”