The bay son of Pioneerof the Nile didn’t have the cleanest of trips early in the nine-furlong contest, bobbling at the start and steading first time under the wire. Jockey Julien Leparoux steered Classic Empire into the clear about three wide and the duo settled into a tracking position as Grandpa’s Dream, Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy dueled through splits of :22.75, :46.92 and 1:11.16.
Classic Empire stayed wide rounding the final turn and rallied to catch Conquest Mo Money in the lane for the half-length victory. The Mark Casse trainee completed 1 1/8 miles over the fast Oaklawn main track in 1:48.93 to earn 100 points toward a starting berth in the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1).
The Arkansas Derby is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series of points races and was worth 100-40-20-10 points to the respective top four finishers. Classic Empire stamped his ticket with the victory, and paid $5.80 as the 9-5 favorite.
Mark Casse, trainer Classic Empire, winner
“He just has so much ability. I knew if we could get him here that he’d be tough. He’s been a challenge, but the last month and a half have been good – a lot of chapters to the book I’m writing (laughs).
“What can you say about the Oaklawn crowd. There are very few crowds like Oaklawn. They love the horse. As a trainer, you want to be around people who love horse racing. That’s what you do this for.”
Was it nerve-wracking? Exciting? Were you tense?
“I was pretty nervous. We run a lot of places, but I was probably a little more nervous. I went and walked up and down inside, watched it on TV. About the eighth-pole everybody around me started looking, because I was doing some yelling. I wasn’t sure he was going to get there. I was afraid that maybe late he’d get tired. But it was exciting. I’ll never forget it.”
Flies back to Louisville, Kentucky, on Monday?
“That’s home for him. We’ll get him back there and come up with a game plan. I think the toughest deal is over, getting to this point. Now he won’t have to do too much going into the (Kentucky) Derby (G1).”
Would you have been satisfied if he had been second, because it would have accomplished what you wanted?
“I would have been. That thought went through my head about the eighth-pole. I said, ‘He’s running well. If he runs 1-2-3, that’s OK, second or third.’ But I never gave up. I was still wanting him to win, but that thought did go through my head.”
What’s it mean to win a race like this for the Oxleys?
“They’ve brought us to a new front. The Oxleys have put so much confidence in myself and my team, you want to reward that confidence. And today was a little bit of the reward.”
John Oxley, owner Classic Empire, winner
Did you think he could do this today?
“I did late last year because we’d just won the (Breeders’ Cup) Juvenile (G1) and were two-year-old champion. So there was a lot of confidence there. But we ran into a few issues, and thanks to the genius of Mark Casse – brilliant trainer – we found the solution. We had Julien (Leparoux) aboard; he stayed with us of course. We found a rider named Martin (Rivera). I think he was the wild card. The horse respected him, he trained so well with him and here we are.”
Asked if he can hold back that smile of going to the Kentucky Derby?
“No. I cannot. I hope it will be on there. I hope it doesn’t crack, that it stays with me. And it will.”
Monarchos, the Oxleys’ 2001 Kentucky Derby winner, was second in his final prep, the Wood Memorial, and some people got off him. How will it be different this time with him being the two-year-old champion?
“I think people will probably stay with him (Classic Empire). That makes it all the bigger challenge, because we sort of like to be behind the radar a little bit. But on the other hand, I’d rather win all the way into the Derby, and that’s the way we are right now.”
You appeared to be scaling back your racing operation until you hooked up with Mark Casse several years ago
“We’ve come from Mark’s leadership in Canada down to the (United) States. I did pretty well up there for a while, too, while I was unknown anymore here (smiles). But now we’re rallying back into the game. It’s awesome. I’m a stayer. When Assault won the ’46 Derby, I was a few years old listening to it on my little radio. The Derby captured me then, and it has every year since.”
“Any owner who goes to a Grade 1 Derby prep would have to be a little bit nervous. And I filled the bill. It felt really great the last 30 seconds.”
Does winning the Kentucky Derby once make you want to win it again just that much more?
“You know, I think I’d say no right away. Because you just want to rejoice and you’re so overwhelmed with the joy of winning the Derby. You want to just keep replaying the experience. A little bit later on, you begin to think about, ‘Well, I don’t deserve to win another.’ 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.”
Debby Oxley, owner Classic Empire, winner
Were you nervous?
“Oh, my knees were about ready to give out. 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.’ No, I was really, really nervous. We all agreed – and I think Mark said it perfectly in an interview earlier this week – everything has been done that could be 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.”
Julien Leparoux, jockey Classic Empire, winner
Trainer Mark Casse wasn’t sure you would get up in time, did you think that as well?
“Was I concerned? He wasn’t 100 percent today, so I was expecting him to be a little tired. But he’s a nice horse. I wanted to have a nice race for him. To be in the (Kentucky) Derby, I knew I had to be in the top four. I think he’s a special horse. Hopefully now there’s no more hiccups and we go to the Derby in a clear (path), and I think we can win it.”
How much better was he today than when he was third in the Holy Bull?
“Much better. He walked in the gate and relaxed. He took me to the race. Usually he is a little keen and today he was, which is a good sign for him. In the Holy Bull he was just not himself, I was laying third, but I didn’t feel like I had too much horse at that time. So today I knew I was loaded. I just needed to get there.”
With all that the horse has been through, how did you guys not lose faith?
“It was a tough winter, I am not going to lie. Come January we expected so much from him and after the Holy Bull he just went downhill from there. It was hard to see whenever we got off the wagon, but at the same time we were running out of time. Today was the last race we could get before the Derby (Kentucky), so it was very important for us to get in. Mark and his team did an awesome job, so the credit goes to them.”
There was a lot of speed in the race, and people thought he might have a trip problems, but he seemed to do what you wanted him to do?
“He is a very professional animal. He was a little fresh today, pulling a little bit, but other than that he did very good.”