The connections of Classic Empire have walked a tightrope all spring trying to get the colt to the Kentucky Derby, and now they've got one major hurdle to clear -- having Classic Empire earn sufficient points and run well enough in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on Saturday to merit a Kentucky Derby start three weeks later.
Classic Empire heads into the Arkansas Derby ranked 21st on the points list used by Churchill Downs to determine the field for the May 6 Derby should more than the maximum 20 enter, which seems like a certainty following this year's tumultuous prep season.
Having enough points hardly seemed as though it would be an issue for Classic Empire back in November. He was an emphatic winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which brought him an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male and already left him with 30 points. This is the fifth year Churchill has used a points system after a 30-year run of using earnings in graded stakes, and in three of the prior four years, 30 points was enough to make the field.
Yet Classic Empire has made just one start this year, a dull third-place finish in the Holy Bull on Feb. 4 that earned him a mere two points, and from which he emerged with a foot abscess that began an adventurous past two months. After recovering from the foot abscess, he twice balked at working at Palm Meadows in south Florida, was treated for an apparent back injury, then was rerouted to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla. -- where he was able to return to a regular work pattern -- and on Wednesday was flown to Arkansas.
"It's been a tough road, but the past month went very well," trainer Mark Casse said this week on a national teleconference. "He just needed to be happy, and he's happy now.
"When we sent him to Ocala, it was either it works now or we stop, regroup, and worry about the summer. We needed everything to go right, and luckily it has."
Classic Empire's total of 32 points equals the highest total needed to make the Derby field in the prior four years, which happened last year. The cutoff from 2013 to 2015 ranged from 10 points to 22, but it has risen every year this system has been in place. And while the percentages are that some horses currently in the top 20 will drop out between now and Derby Day owing to injury or owners having their Derby fever finally break, Classic Empire goes into this weekend on the outside looking in and with the possibility that some horses currently below him - like Sonneteer (20 points), Petrov (13), and Lookin At Lee (12) - could leapfrog him if they outfinish him in the Arkansas Derby.
The Arkansas Derby is the last major prep for the Kentucky Derby, offering 170 qualifying points overall, with 100 for first, 40 for second, 20 for third, and 10 for fourth. A fourth-place finish would give Classic Empire 42 points, which currently would place him 15th on the list.
"He has to finish 1-2-3-4," said Casse, who trains Classic Empire for John Oxley and is assisted by his son Norman Casse. "If he doesn't do that, he doesn't need to be going to the Kentucky Derby. If he qualifies, he deserves to go. If he doesn't, we'll have to go to Plan B."
The Arkansas Derby and the Grade 3, $200,000 Lexington Stakes on Saturday at Keeneland are the final two races of 35 run in the United States over the past seven months in which horses can earn points toward the Kentucky Derby. The Lexington should not have an impact on this year's Derby since all the entrants lack sufficient points as of now and the point value of the race -- 10 for first, four for second, two for third, and one for fourth -- will leave even the winner well below the likely cutoff point barring mass defections.
Of the 33 preps run so far, 24 horses have won them, reflecting how wide open this prep season has been. Even if Classic Empire prevails on Saturday, there will be 25 horses who accounted for the 35 races. There are seven horses -- including Classic Empire -- who have won two of the preps, and one horse, Gormley, has won three.
But two of the multiple winners, El Areeb and Mastery, sustained injuries that took them off the Derby trail. The challenge is not only racing well, but also staying sound. That's the minefield Classic Empire has had to negotiate this year.
"On Saturday night, win, lose, or draw, we'll have done all we can," Mark Casse said.