Classic Empire headlines busy Kentucky Derby prep day
A big day of Kentucky Derby prep races is set for Saturday thanks to three different points events on tap at Gulfstream Park, Aqueduct and Santa Anita Park. Each race is worth 10-4-2-1 to the respective top four finishers toward a starting berth in the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs.
The $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes (G2) drew a field of nine and probably will garner the most attention with Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) champion Classic Empire making his seasonal bow.
The Mark Casse pupil is 5-4-0-0 in his career, with that one loss coming when he lost his rider at the start of the Hopeful Stakes (G1) last September. Prior to that the Pioneerof the Nile colt broke his maiden and took the Bashford Manor Stakes (G3). He followed the Hopeful with a three-length score in the Breeders’ Futurity Stakes (G1) and gutted out a neck win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to wrap up championship honors.
“He’s such an athlete,” Casse said. “What makes him so good is the way he moves. A really wise, one of the smartest horsemen I know in the world looked at him and said he looked like a panther. I think that’s the best way to describe him. I’m not going to say who it was, but he’s one of the best horsemen in the world, and he described him as a panther. He’s always ready to pounce. You just don’t know what he’s going to pounce on, but so far he’s pounced on the competition.
“You’re always anxious off a layoff to get going. We’re ready. All systems are ‘go.’ We’re excited to get going. It’s the first step,” Casse added.
Lining up against Classic Empire and jockey Julien Leparoux will be Gunnevera from the shedrow of Antonio Sano. The chestnut broke his maiden and took the Saratoga Special Stakes (G2) before tangling with Classic Empire in the Breeders’ Futurity. Gunnevera could only manage a fifth-place finish that day after a wide trip throughout but returned to romp by 5 3/4 lengths in the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (G3) last out. Javier Castellano has the call in the Holy Bull.
Irish War Cry and Fact Finding are a couple of impressive newcomers in the 1 1/16-mile affair. The former is unbeaten from two lifetime starts, including the Marylander Stakes at Laurel Park on New Year’s Eve for which he earned a 100 BRIS Speed figure, and gets first-time Lasix here. Joel Rosario will be holding the reins for the first time for Graham Motion.
Fact Finding is also undefeated, recording his third straight victory when romping by seven lengths in the Smooth Air Stakes on December 10 at Gulfstream. The Pletcher trainee earned a 101 BRIS Speed rating for that effort under John Velazquez, who returns to the saddle in this spot.
On a quick sidenote, the $200,000 Swale Stakes (G2) is also carded for Saturday at Gulfstream. While the seven-furlong contest isn’t part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series of points races, the six-horse field includes four Triple Crown nominees – Grade 2-placed stakes scorer Sonic Mule, multiple stakes hero Three Rules, undefeated Derek’s Smile and Canadian stakes victor Vanish – who could be using the sprint as a starting point for longer events down the road.
Aqueduct attracted a field of 10 to try their luck in the $250,000 Withers Stakes (G3) about an hour earlier on Saturday. All but one of those runners is nominated to the Triple Crown, including El Areeb, Bonus Points and True Timber.
Those three finished in that order in the January 2 Jerome Stakes (G3) going a mile and 70 yards over the muddy, sloppy inner track. However, El Areeb was easily the best on that occasion, scoring by 11 lengths for trainer Cathal Lynch while stretching out past six furlongs for the first time.
The gray son of Exchange Rate dropped his initial two career outings but, after an 8 3/4-length wire job to break his maiden at Laurel Park, El Areeb captured his stakes bow in similar fashion by 5 1/4 lengths on November 19 at Laurel. Trevor McCarthy has been aboard for all five of the sophomore’s starts and retains the mount here.
"His prep works heading into this race have been very good, especially yesterday," Lynch said. "He had a really good breeze going :47 and change (on Tuesday at Laurel) and he came back good, so we're happy with him. He wouldn't be a big fan of the mud if it comes back again and thankfully the weather forecast looks like we'll be in good shape for Saturday. He did handle it last time but he prefers a good to fast track. Looking back to his last stakes win at Laurel, that was on a fast track and he relished on it.
"We've always thought he was going to be a two-turn horse and he's just been getting better and better," Lynch added. "Most of his works here in the morning are around two turns. We gave him a sharp work yesterday, but most of his works in the morning are around mile to a mile and an eighth to a quarter, and it seems the farther he goes the better."
Bonus Points and True Timber were separated by a half-length in the Jerome. The former entered the race off another second, this time in the Maryland Juvenile Futurity, while the latter was making his stakes debut in the race. Todd Pletcher has tabbed Manuel Franco to ride Bonus Points and Kendrick Carmouche will be aboard True Timber for Kiaran McLaughlin.
The earliest of Saturday’s Kentucky Derby preps is the $150,000 Robert E. Lewis Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita Park. The 1 1/16-mile trial only drew five runners, which probably explains its 4 p.m. (ET) post time.
Unlike the other two, there’s no major stand out in the Lewis. Irap was a well-beaten second in the CashCall Futurity (G1) two back but is also still a maiden. Dangerfield followed a 4 1/4-length win in the Oak Tree Juvenile Stakes with a pair of well-beaten thirds in the Delta Downs Jackpot and CashCall Futurity. Term of Art sandwiched a victory in the Cecil B. DeMille Stakes (G3) between double-digit beats in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Sham Stakes (G3).
The remaining two runners in the Lewis are Royal Mo and Sheer Flattery, both maiden scorers.
Classic Empire photo courtesy of Benoit Photos