HOT SPRINGS, Ark. -- Relief.
That's the emotion that first rushed over trainer Mark Casse when champion Classic Empire crossed the wire first in the Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby on Saturday at Oaklawn.
Classic Empire and Casse had been through a range of developments this season, as the horse who closed out his 2-year-old season with a win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile could manage just a distant third in his first start of the year in the Grade 2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream.
The battle back to the winner's circle included a fight with a foot abscess, and a back issue, plus an interrupted work schedule in the prime prep season for the Kentucky Derby. But those issues were erased in 1:48.93, the winning time of the Arkansas Derby that Classic Empire won by a half-length over Conquest Mo Money.
"Finally," Casse said. "It's relief, I guess, and maybe disbelief, that we were able to, after all the obstacles that were thrown our way, to achieve it. There's so many people that helped with this at our farm, everywhere. It's been tense."
But now, the Kentucky Derby is a reality for last year's 2-year-old champion male. Casse said Classic Empire will head next to Churchill Downs, where he will begin preparations for the Kentucky Derby.
"He doesn't have to do a whole lot," Casse said. "He'll probably have one breeze. If all goes well, the first Saturday in May."
Classic Empire ($5.80) broke with the field in the Arkansas Derby and settled off the pace of Grandpa's Dream and Conquest Mo Money, who raced through an opening quarter in 22.75 seconds and an opening half-mile in 46.92. Conquest Mo Money continued on in front through six furlongs in 1:11.16, as Classic Empire advanced under regular rider Julien Leparoux, while traveling wide around the final turn and into the stretch. He then put in a diligent rally to catch Conquest Mo Money.
"He was an entirely different horse from when he ran bad down at Gulfstream," Casse said of the Holy Bull. "Julien said he walked right into the gate. He was good. And he said down the backside -- at Gulfstream he was never into the race -- that he was pulling him. He was wanting to do something. He was hoping he would find somewhere to go."
Casse said in the days following the Holy Bull, the horse was found to have a right front foot abscess that did not reveal itself for days after the race.
"He had some legitimate excuses," Casse said. "I mean, his foot abcess was very bad, and maybe getting off that foot he hurt his back."
The back healed, the foot has returned to health, and Classic Empire is back in the game for owner John Oxley. The horse earned $600,000 for his win in the Arkansas Derby, as well as 100 eligibility points for the Kentucky Derby. The race Saturday also offered points to the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers -- Conquest Mo Money, Lookin At Lee and Sonneteer -- on a scale of 40-20-10.
Classic Empire, who was the favorite Saturday, is a son of Pioneeerof the Nile and was bred in Kentucky by Steven Nicholson and Brandi Nicholson.
The remaining order of finish in the Arkansas Derby was Malagacy, Untrapped, Silver Dust, Rowdy the Warrior, Petrov, One Dreamy Dude, Grandpa's Dream and Rockin Rudy.
Oaklawn handled a meet-high $13.5 million on its 12-race card Saturday. The attendance on track was an estimated 62,500.