Takeaways from Classic Empire’s Arkansas Derby victory

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TwinSpires Staff

April 20th, 2017

By Dick Powell

Run last Saturday at Oaklawn Park, the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) turned out to be a hard race to analyze for a number of reasons.

First, how will the Kentucky Derby (G1) runners coming out of it perform off only three weeks rest? Yes, AMERICAN PHAROAH (Pioneerof the Nile) did it a couple of years ago but he was a superstar and didn’t have to run that hard. In today’s world of maximum time between races, three weeks seems less and less every year but this year’s Arkansas Derby field was very strong so maybe we did see a Kentucky Derby winner.

Second, many runners had very tough trips. CLASSIC EMPIRE (Pioneerof the Nile) had to steady before they even hit the finish line the first time and MALAGACY (Shackleford) was five wide on the clubhouse turn when he didn’t break alertly from post 12. Classic Empire raced between horses down the backstretch and had to swing wide turning for home.

LOOKIN AT LEE (Lookin at Lucky) made an improbable rally from way back, weaving through the stretch to get up for third. Is he this year’s CREATOR (Tapit), who came back to win the Belmont Stakes (G1) or SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS (Mineshaft), who never really developed any more after the Arkansas Derby? 

Third, the final time of 1:48.93 was pretty good compared to the other nine-furlong prep races run this year but Classic Empire only earned a 96 BRIS Speed rating. It was off a 10-week rest and he did not have a clean trip but does the effort set him up for improvement, which he will need on the first Saturday in May? Sometimes a hard race is exactly what a horse needs next time out so I wouldn’t plan on him going backwards.

Fourth, how do you judge a race where the fourth-place finisher, SONNETEER (Midnight Lute), is still a maiden? Granted, he’s not your ordinary maiden, placing second to Malagacy in the Rebel Stakes (G2), but he is winless in 10 starts. The dark bay finished full of run and earned a BRIS Late Pace rating of 109 which is tremendous going long on the dirt. Still, unless Sonneteer develops into a top colt, the two lengths between him and the winner raises questions about the overall talent of the field.

So what do we take away from the Arkansas Derby?

Classic Empire, last year’s 2YO champion, is back and whatever was bothering him when he bombed in the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) with a well-beaten third is gone. Trainer Mark Casse and his team have done a masterful job getting him back on track and it would not surprise me if he moves forward after Saturday.

I thought the star of the race was Malagacy. When he drew post 12, you knew he would have to come out running from the start. The last to load, he was never ready for the start and broke poorly. It looked like the starter just pressed the button instead of making sure that everyone was ready. It cost Malagacy dearly but he ran incredibly well while never even seeing the rail.

Game as could be, he battled CONQUEST MO MONEY (Uncle Mo) through the lane and the two bumped each other repeatedly. It was only in the shadow of the wire where he weakened to be fifth and when you take into account the ground he lost, it was a terrific performance. If he draws better, he wins.

Conquest Mo Money will point for the Preakness and pay a $150K supplement for the last two legs of the Triple Crown. He would have added another speed horse to this year’s field and the connections of them should be quite happy that this game horse will not be in the Derby. He definitely would have affected how the race was run.

Lookin at Lee looked like a horse that wanted every bit of the nine furlongs and should have no trouble going 10. He’s 21st in the points standings and needs a rival to defect, but a lot will happen in the next few weeks. He was in behind the pack and even though the chart shows him making up about four lengths in the last half mile, he willingly passed horses.

With the prep season over, now for the real work of trying to make sense of it all.

Kiaran McLaughlin had a sensational day at Keeneland on Saturday when he won four races. In the Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1), DICKINSON (Medgalia d’Oro) tried to split horses with a furlong to go, backed off and allowed the leaders to pass by in the stretch, swung out off heels and ran down LADY ELI (Divine Park) in the final yards.

I hate to jump the gun but I was concerned with Lady Eli’s head carriage through the stretch. Yes, I know it was her first start of the year and she exploded when Irad Ortiz Jr. asked her to through a hole at the top of the stretch. But her head was cocked sideways and as quickly as she went by Dickinson she gave it back up to her. The heart and desire is still there but I hate to see her lose these battles.