04/27/2017 12:30PM

Oxley's rebuilt team back in Kentucky Derby with Classic Empire

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Barbara D. Livingston
Owner John Oxley will try for his second Kentucky Derby victory with the Mark Casse-trained colt Classic Empire.

John Oxley remembers his father gathering the family around a tiny radio in his hometown of Tulsa, Okla., to listen to Clem McCarthy’s call of the 1946 Kentucky Derby, where Assault launched his successful quest for the Triple Crown.

Eight years later, Oxley was in Louisville as the gray colt Determine won the spring classic. After methodically building a racing stable throughout his adulthood, Oxley won the second Kentucky Derby he ever entered, as the gray colt Monarchos carried his powder-blue and gold silks to victory.

Easy game? Hardly. It took Oxley more than a decade after that to make it back to the Derby, and when he did, his operation had drastically changed. Oxley has revitalized his racing string in recent years, thanks to his partnership with trainer Mark Casse. The duo will participate in the Derby for the third time in its last seven renewals with the champion Classic Empire, a horse unlike any they’ve had together before.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Oxley’s passion for the Derby.

“I’m a stayer,” said Oxley, 80. “The Derby captured me then, and it has every year since.”

Oxley inherited his love of horses from his father, an accomplished polo player. His equestrian pursuits began with that sport as well; he served as president and chairman of the U.S. Polo Association and was eventually inducted into the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame.

Meanwhile, Oxley was building his fortune through Oxley Petroleum, an oil and gas exploration firm he founded in 1962 that would eventually give him the resources to pursue high-end Thoroughbred ownership.

The owner purchased his first racehorse for just $7,500 out of a sale of 2-year-olds in training in 1972 at Hialeah Park. Port Everglades won 7 of 47 starts over four seasons. From that modest beginning, Oxley, with John Ward as his primary trainer, worked his way up through the levels, campaigning horses such as Florida-bred stakes winner Yes Dear Maggy. He deepened his involvement in the sport after marrying his wife, Debby, a Louisville native, in 1994.

The Oxleys made their first appearance in the Derby owners’ boxes in 1995, with Ward saddling the homebred Pyramid Peak, the winner of the Flamingo Stakes, and Jambalaya Jazz, a graded-stakes-winning juvenile at Churchill Downs who had been third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes.

Jambalaya Jazz finished a non-threatening 15th and Pyramid Peak 17th behind Thunder Gulch. But the day before, the Oxleys had made the trip down to the Churchill winner’s circle, as their Gal in a Ruckus scored her first stakes victory in the Kentucky Oaks.

Six years later, Oxley returned to the Kentucky Derby with Monarchos. Although he had dazzled in winning the Florida Derby, the public had cooled on Monarchos after a runner-up effort in the Wood Memorial.

But under Ward’s tutelage, Monarchos not only won the Kentucky Derby by 4 3/4 lengths, he added an exclamation point by stopping the clock in 1:59.97 for 1 1/4 miles – making him only the second winner to complete the distance in less than two minutes, joining 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. Secretariat still holds the track and stakes record at 1:59 2/5, before the widespread use of hundredths in reporting fractions.

“You just want to rejoice, and you’re so overwhelmed with the joy of winning the Derby,” Oxley said. “You want to just keep replaying the experience.”

Other highlights for the Oxley and Ward team in their three-decade partnership include Eclipse Award champion older female Beautiful Pleasure, whose six Grade 1 victories included the 1999 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and Grade 1 winner Sky Mesa, who went on to become a successful sire.

But eventually, those all became memories, as Ward decided to make a career change. Appointed executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission in 2012, he surrendered his Kentucky trainer’s license.

With that change looming, Oxley had begun making his transition to the Casse barn. Oxley had previously sent Casse a few horses with little success, but he elected to go back to the well based on the recommendation of fellow horseman Charles Nuckols. His Nuckols Farm, near Oxley’s Fawn Leap Farm in Midway, Ky., stood Monarchos for the majority of his stud career.

Casse had been the meet leader at Churchill Downs in 1988, but not long afterward, he moved his main base to Canada, where he is now a nine-time Sovereign Award-winning trainer. With the encouragement of Oxley and son and top assistant Norman Casse, a Kentucky native, Mark Casse has reestablished a major U.S. presence.

“I was kind of going along very nicely in Toronto, doing my thing every year, and was quite happy,” Casse said. “With Norman pushing, with Mr. Oxley behind us, it allowed us to focus more in the U.S. You are only as good as the players that you have. Mr. Oxley was the guy who let us go and buy those horses that we wanted. We’ve had a lot of luck for him. When they have that much faith in you, you want to accomplish even that much more. And he’s a true gentleman of the game as well.”

Together, Oxley and Casse have had success on both sides of the border, campaigning 2012 Canadian Horse of the Year Uncaptured; Grade 1 winner Noble Bird; 2010 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies third-place finisher Delightful Mary, a Sovereign Award champion 2-year-old filly; Grade 1 winner Spring in the Air, the 2012 Sovereign champion juvenile filly; 2014 Sovereign champion grass horse Dynamic Sky; and multiple graded stakes winner La Coronel.

La Coronel recently gave Oxley a meaningful victory, as her score in the Appalachian Stakes earned him the Keeneland gold tray, part of the track’s signature milestone trophy program, for his eighth graded stakes win at the historic track.

“I’ve been running here at Keeneland since the ‘70s, and I never thought about ever getting to this point,” Oxley said. “It’s exceptional. It’s a thrill, and it’s an honor.”

The duo’s first Kentucky Derby starter together was Prospective, a graded-stakes-winning juvenile in Canada who won the Tampa Bay Derby and finished sixth in the Blue Grass Stakes before finishing 18th in the 2012 Derby. Three years later, they brought in the improving Danzig Moon, who had finished fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby and second in the Blue Grass. The ill-fated colt finished a creditable fifth behind Triple Crown hero American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby and sixth in the slop at the Preakness.

Later that year, Oxley and Casse went to $425,000 to acquire a colt by American Pharoah’s sire, Pioneerof the Nile, at the Keeneland September yearling sale. Classic Empire is an exceptional talent, winning the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to lock up a divisional Eclipse Award – but has also been a challenge for Casse, whom Oxley calls “brilliant.”

The colt dumped his rider at the start of last summer’s Hopeful Stakes, prompting the trainer to equip him with blinkers; lost his 2017 debut in the Holy Bull Stakes and shortly afterward popped a hoof abscess; and refused to breeze on a few occasions afterward, improving after a change of scenery to a Florida training center. His connections could be forgiven for being nervous as the colt loaded into the starting gate for the Arkansas Derby, his final chance to make the Kentucky Derby field.

“Oh, my knees were about ready to give out,” Debby Oxley said. “I was standing on those stairs, watching the race, and was like, ‘Oh gosh, I hope I don’t fall over and take six people with me.’ I was really, really nervous. We all agreed – everything has been done that could be done. He was either going to go out and perform, or he wasn’t. It was out of our control, our hands.”

Classic Empire ground out a half-length win in the Arkansas Derby and has now returned to Churchill Downs, where Oxley can barely entertain the idea of a return to the rose-trimmed winner’s circle.

“You begin to think about, ‘Well, I don’t deserve to win another,’ ” Oxley said. “Because once in a lifetime for anyone is awesome. But then being competitive, you have to get back in the game, and you have to try. I just want to be in the game, be in the hunt, be in the race. I don’t have to win it.”