02/05/2017 11:50AM

Watchmaker: Classic Empire's dud muddies Kentucky Derby road

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You might think that since all three of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby point prep races were won in decisive fashion, the Derby picture right now on Sunday morning is at least just a tiny bit clearer. But that is anything but the case.

Instead of clarity, the road to the Derby Saturday veered sharply off the path and straight into some very tall weeds. And that is because of Classic Empire’s shockingly empty performance in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream.

There are folks who note – largely with the benefit of post-race hindsight – that Classic Empire was anxious pre-start, and that he had only four middling published workouts for his first start since his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, inferring that he was dead short. Maybe there is merit to this viewpoint, maybe not, but that fails to squarely address the more important point that the Classic Empire we saw in the Holy Bull was far from the compelling colt we all saw last year.

Classic Empire was so impressive when he dominated the Breeders’ Futurity last October at Keeneland going two turns in what was his first representative outing in three months, discounting his start in the Hopeful when he wheeled coming out of the gate, dumping his rider. And his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was a particularly strongly run renewal of that event.

Classic Empire was the unanimous 2-year-old male champion, receiving the top vote on every single one of the 248 Eclipse Award ballots cast. And he was the clear favorite in every Kentucky Derby future book pool that matters. And that’s why his effort Saturday was so surprising, and not in a good way. You could see Classic Empire was in trouble early on the far turn – and that after being perfectly positioned off a totally unremarkable early pace – and though he did finish third, he was beaten almost nine lengths, which is stunning.

It is good news that all is well with Classic Empire in the race’s aftermath. Yet that just makes his Holy Bull performance all the more mystifying. In any case, the Kentucky Derby picture has now been turned on its head in ways few could have envisioned 24 hours earlier.

It’s a little unfair to Irish War Cry that his breakout victory in the Holy Bull must share the spotlight with Classic Empire’s dud. But if Irish War Cry is really as good as he suggested he might be, he’ll get his due, and soon.

Irish War Cry, who won both of his starts late last year at Laurel, was first-time Lasix Saturday, and clearly loved the stretch out to two turns, as most sons of Curlin would. Irish War Cry went right to the front, stayed away from a rail that might not have been the place to be Saturday (so did Classic Empire, at least when it mattered to him), and improved his position from there. Irish War Cry was even more superior than his official win margin of 3 ¾ lengths would suggest, and that says something. But it should also be noted that Irish War Cry accomplished this while enjoying a largely uncontested pace through very moderate fractions. We all know the impact that combination can have on the character and outcome of races.

El Areeb’s victory in Saturday’s Withers at Aqueduct did not come as a result of pace or other in-race factors. El Areeb dominated, scoring by just over four lengths, simply because he was tons the best.

Still, the Withers was an important race for El Areeb. He had already showed he could win big on a fast track when sprinting, which he did at Laurel in his last two starts at 2. But his romping score in last month’s Jerome in his first attempt going two turns came on a muddy track. Even if El Areeb was the 1-2 favorite in the Withers, he still had to prove he could be as effective routing on a fast track, when footing might not compromise some of his opponents. Well, consider that box ticked.

The one cause for reservation when it comes to El Areeb is that his Withers and Jerome scores came at the expense of clearly suspect opposition. True Timber, who was beaten almost 12 lengths when third in the Jerome, finished second in the Withers, and that after stumbling at the start and rushing up to set the pace. J Boys Echo finished a clear third, and I can tell you as someone who bet him, he did not run well, showing serious limitations.

Maybe El Areeb will be up to the task when the competition gets much tougher, which it soon will. Having won his last four starts by a combined 29 ½ lengths, the suggestion certainly is there is a lot more to him. But that’s just another box El Areeb must tick.

Royal Mo was much the best winning the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita by 3 ½ lengths. But his victory included a mix of the factors that impacted the outcomes of the Holy Bull and Withers.

Royal Mo went wire to wire in the Lewis, but the pace he set was nothing special. It was comparable to 3-year-old maidens in the opener the race before the Lewis, but was – perhaps not surprisingly – considerably slower than solid older horses in the San Antonio later in the card.

Moreover, to say that Royal Mo dispatched a questionable field would be kind. The only horse who challenged him really at any point was Irap. Irap remains a maiden now after five starts, yet he gamely held on for second.

There are, however, good things to say about Royal Mo. The Lewis was his first start in more than two months, and was his second straight win. And the preliminary Beyer Figure he received of 93, four points lower than Irish War Cry, but a point higher than El Areeb, represented a 20-point leap from his best Beyer at 2. That is a strong indication that Royal Mo has made the step forward from 2 to 3 that you would want to see.