04/16/2017 11:27AM

Road to the Derby: Arkansas Derby analysis

Coady Photography
Classic Empire got a 94 Beyer Speed Figure for winning the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on Saturday.

Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby, 1 1/8 miles, Oaklawn Park, April 15, 2017
(100 Derby qualifying points for a win, 40 for second, 20 for third, 10 for fourth)

Winner: Classic Empire, by Pioneerof the Nile
Trainer: Mark Casse
Jockey: Julien Leparoux
Owner: John Oxley
Beyer Speed Figure: 94

The 35-race Kentucky Derby prep season was one long and winding road, so how appropriate that CLASSIC EMPIRE, who had a tumultuous spring, resurrected his standing and made the Derby a whole lot more interesting by turning in a remarkable performance to win the last of the races for which horses could earn points toward a Derby berth at Churchill Downs on May 6.

While the figure of this race is below the best Classic Empire achieved at age 2, such as in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (http://www.drf.com/news/road-2017-kentucky-derby-breeders-cup-juvenile-analysis), it is vitally important to remember what he went through this spring. He never fired in the Holy Bull (http://www.drf.com/news/road-derby-holy-bull-stakes-analysis) on Feb. 4, came out of that race with a nasty foot abscess, twice balked at working at Palm Meadows, was treated for a back problem, was re-routed to the Winding Oaks training center in Ocala where he worked three times, then went to Oaklawn.

So, Classic Empire was making his second start in 23 weeks, his lone start in that interim one that barely mattered, and he came into this race off an abbreviated work tab against horses who had been racing and training regularly all spring. And he still beat them.

There’s no possible way Classic Empire could have been at his best, and if this race moves him forward, he is absolutely a prime contender to wear the roses. To me, the biggest concern would be if he regresses coming back in three weeks off this effort. But if he progresses, look out.

In the Arkansas Derby, Classic Empire bobbled slightly leaving the gate, had to check between runners 100 yards into the race, raced in traffic while between horses in the three path around the first turn, remained in traffic down the backstretch while between runners and just behind MALAGACY, went into the far turn three to four paths wide, was patiently handled by Leparoux on the far turn after UNTRAPPED made an early move, swung out for room entering the lane, continued resolutely and got up in the closing yards while swapping over to his wrong lead near the wire. There were several points in this race where he could have chucked it, but he kept going.

CONQUEST MO MONEY, who was second, broke slightly to his right leaving the gate but showed his usual good speed to go up and vie for the lead while three paths wide around the first turn, led narrowly down the backstretch and into the far turn, repelled Malagacy and Untrapped a quarter-mile out, drifted about through the lane and brushed with Malagacy a furlong out, but was overtaken by only Classic Empire late. He earned $200,000 for finishing second, which is the exact amount it will take to supplement him to the Derby if his connections so choose, as he was not nominated to the Triple Crown.

LOOKIN AT LEE, who was third, lacked speed and went into the first turn in 10th while two paths off the rail. He commenced a rally while four paths wide on the far turn, ducked inside of Classic Empire in upper stretch, appeared headed to the rail but was angled out again a sixteenth out to avoid the weaving pair of Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy, and continued on well. He needs distance and pace.

SONNETEER, who was fourth, was well back early in 11th, began his rally about four paths wide on the far turn, was fanned about five lanes wide entering the lane, and steadily closed.

Malagacy, who was fifth, seemed unsettled in the gate when the latch was sprung, showed good speed but couldn’t get over from his outside stall and was caught four paths wide into the first turn, settled into a stalking position into the backstretch, moved to vie for the lead while three paths wide on the far turn, was even with Conquest Mo Money a quarter-mile out, brushed with Conquest Mo Money in upper stretch, then swapped back to his wrong lead in deep stretch while probably tiring from an adventurous trip over a distance that is likely beyond optimum.

Untrapped, who was sixth, went into the first turn in the four path, just outside Classic Empire, was forced to remain wide down the backstretch and into the far turn, moved to challenge for the lead in the four path on the far turn, couldn’t get past Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy entering the lane and then tired. As with Malagacy, he probably doesn’t want to run quite this far, but he lost a lot of ground in this race.

SILVER DUST, who finished seventh, hugged the rail into the first turn while in ninth place, was very keen entering the backstretch and advanced to be just behind the leaders, remained on the rail for most of the far turn, had to go around the tiring GRANDPA’S DREAM at the quarter pole, and finished evenly. There were others in this race who had far more difficult trips who finished in front of him.

ROWDY THE WARRIOR, who was eighth, was taken in hand early and trailed while well behind into the first turn, was three paths wide on the far turn and four wide into the lane, and never threatened while passing a few tired rivals.

PETROV, who was ninth, broke alertly, vied for the lead while along the rail around the first turn, was eased back to stalking position just behind the leaders into the backstretch, raced between rivals in the two path into the far turn, was right alongside Classic Empire entering the stretch but faded through the lane.

ONE DREAMY DUDE, who was 10th, was caught about four paths wide into the first turn but then angled in to save ground around that turn, ducked to the rail entering the far turn, but had nothing to offer.

Grandpa’s Dream, who was 11th, vied for the lead between rivals around the first turn, dueled with Conquest Mo Money down the backstretch, was asked hard to hold his position beginning three furlongs out but readily gave way.

ROCKIN RUDY, who finished last of 12, had good speed leaving the gate from his rail post, was checked into the first turn behind Petrov, raced in traffic just inside of Classic Empire down the backstretch, was asked to hold his position a half-mile out but was done and quickly dropped back.