With his victory in Saturday's $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1), Classic Empire made an emphatic statement that the son of Pioneerof the Nile will be a formidable foe in the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1).
Last year's undefeated 2-year-old champion, Classic Empire's lone 2017 start prior to Saturday was an uncharacteristic third in the Holy Bull S. (G3). After a minor foot issue, Classic Empire put in a solid series of works in preparation for the Arkansas Derby, with the public ultimately sending him off as the 9-5 favorite.
Breaking from post 2, Classic Empire was squeezed back and found himself in seventh going into the first turn. As the field moved onto the backstretch, Julien Leparoux had a snug hold on Classic Empire as he held his position in traffic about four lengths off the lead.
Making his way three-wide on the final turn, Classic Empire actually lost some ground to the leaders, but once he turned for home, Leparoux took Classic Empire to the middle of the track for clear running. Conquest Mo Money provided the stiffest challenge in deep stretch, but Classic Empire was going the best at the end, winning by a half-length in 1:48.93.
"He just has so much ability. I knew if we could get him here that he'd be tough," said trainer Mark Casse. "He's been a challenge, but the last month and a half have been good.
"I've always believed in him. I knew he had a tremendous amount of ability and I thought he was ready today. I'm proud of him."
Classic Empire will now go on to Louisville as one of the favorites for the 143rd Run for the Roses.
"(Churchill Downs is) home for him. We'll get him back there and come up with a game plan," Casse said. "I think the toughest deal is over, getting to this point. Now he won't have to do too much going into the Derby."
Classic Empire is now a three-time Grade 1 winner of $2,120,220. Owned by John Oxley, the bay colt sold for $475,000 to his owner at the 2015 Keeneland September Yearling sale.
Classic Empire is Pioneerof the Nile's second all-time leading earner, behind only Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah, who like Classic Empire, was a 2-year-old champion.