Classic Empire shows heart of a champion

In a Kentucky Derby prep-race season that has taken some weird and uninspiring turns even by Kentucky Derby prep-season standards -- which says a lot -- Saturday's Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn was an entirely fitting coda.

At the top, it was good for the Derby and good for the game that Classic Empire won the Arkansas Derby. Classic Empire was last year's unanimous 2-year-old male champion, and a 3-year-old with credentials like that should absolutely be in the Kentucky Derby field, as long as he is ambulatory.

Classic Empire is at the very least ambulatory. Yet if he finished worse than third Saturday, he would have been shut out of a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby without defections among those with higher point totals.

And while we're in a giving mood, the Mark Casse barn deserves high marks for getting Classic Empire into a position to win this Arkansas Derby. Classic Empire must be like the kid who tests you at every turn. He behaves badly, such as when he inexplicably wheeled at the start of the Hopeful last summer as the favorite, or when he declined to train on occasion this past winter.

But Classic Empire is also a kid you can't help but love because he's just so darn good at heart. He showed he was plenty good when he won the Breeders' Futurity last fall in his first start around two turns, which also happened to be his first representative outing in three months, and he showed it again Saturday in winning what was his first representative start in more than five months, if, that is, you don't count his debacle of a performance in the Holy Bull.

However, as much as a feel-good redemption story Classic Empire was Saturday, it is also fair to question if his Arkansas Derby stands up to scrutiny. It might not when you consider how close certain horses were to Classic Empire at the finish.

Malagacy, the Rebel winner and second choice to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby betting, simply failed to stay, adding weight to the belief he is a sprinter at this stage in his career. Yet though Malagacy finished a fading fifth, he was beaten only a little more than two lengths for all the money.

Lookin At Lee, who could not finish better than sixth in the Rebel even though that race fell apart late yet still earned a career-best Beyer Figure of 86 in that outing, was a gaining third Saturday, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths. Sonneteer, a maiden whose second-place finish in the Rebel was an indictment of that field, remains a maiden, but finished only a half-length behind Lookin At Lee in fourth, and was gaining just as quickly.

Maybe those two and runner-up Conquest Mo Money, who was coming off a soundly beaten second in the Sunland Derby, all improved dramatically Saturday. Maybe. But if you don't accept the implausible scenario that all of them took a big step forward, then you can project Classic Empire managing a winning Beyer somewhere in the mediocre neighborhood of the low 90s. Let's see what the Beyer people do with this race, but the outcome might not be great.

Beyond that, Classic Empire has another big hill to climb if he is to succeed in the Kentucky Derby. With just one representative outing in the last five months, you have to wonder if the Arkansas Derby gave him enough foundation for that demanding 1 1/4 miles at Churchill Downs.

I don't think it's going to be easy for Classic Empire. But he's going where he deserves to be, and I do know this: It is never a good idea to underestimate a champion.

* Now that all the prep races for the May 6 Kentucky Derby are over, let's grade the nine final prep races, those run since March 25. And there will be no grading on a curve here.

Grade B +: Florida Derby and Wood Memorial

Always Dreaming won the Florida Derby by five lengths and in such decisive fashion that he immediately became one of the future book favorites for the Kentucky Derby, a role he assumed clear ownership of after the results of some key subsequent preps. The knocks on the Florida Derby are that the pace seemed unremarkable and it completely held together, and Always Dreaming was part of that pace. And as decisively as he won, Always Dreaming did not earn a triple-digit Beyer Figure (he received a 97). But those might be more nitpicks than knocks.

Although the Wood Memorial was run on a speed-favoring track, it still seemed like a strongly run and won event. After relaxing in the initial stages, Irish War Cry went up to press a quick pace and then powered clear through the stretch. This was, for me, the best performance so far from Irish War Cry, and the 101 Beyer he earned made him the only Kentucky Derby aspirant to have received two triple-digit Beyers this year.

Grade C: Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby

I could be grading this prep way too high. The Santa Anita Derby might be more worthy of a D, because it devolved into a staggerfest in the late stages, resulting in a winning Beyer of a paltry 88. I'm actually shocked that a pedestrian Beyer like that could be attached to a race such as the Santa Anita Derby, so much so that I'm questioning if this race was actually that bad. I'm not saying I don't buy the number, but I am wondering if it makes sense that a handful of horses all ran a dud on the same day. That said, the only one out of this race I'd be interested in betting back is runner-up Battle of Midway, who at least ran hard every step after strangely disputing the fast early pace.

See above for Arkansas Derby analysis

Grade C: Sunland Derby, Louisiana Derby, and Blue Grass

Hence's 93 Beyer for his going-away score in the Sunland Derby really doesn't look all that bad in the context of this year's Kentucky Derby prep season. But Hence earned that Beyer with a tremendous pace setup that flattered his closing style over a suspect field. And that, combined with his previous dismal showing in the Southwest the one time he faced reasonably good company, deflates my grade on this prep.

Although Girvin improved his record to three wins from four career starts in the Louisiana Derby, his performance, and the race, was uninspiring. Girvin got the best of a horse in Patch who was coming off only a maiden victory, and the 91 Beyer he was assigned was a step backward.

At least Girvin beat a maiden winner in the Louisiana Derby. Everyone in the beaten field of the Blue Grass finished behind a colt in Irap who was still a maiden after seven career starts. Irap capitalized on being on or with a slow Blue Grass pace in his 31-1 upset, a pace that gave most of the more highly regarded members of the field a built-in excuse if you were so inclined, which I am not.

Practical Joke's inability to get by a maiden after having every chance only cemented my belief that he is not a true two-turn horse, at least not at this stage of his career. McCraken had a license to need the Blue Grass after missing a scheduled start in the Tampa Bay Derby, but it was still surprising to see his lack of punch through the stretch, a flat effort that caused him to loose his role as future book Derby favorite. And J Boys Echo and Tapwrit might have been pace-compromised, but they also did very little running, especially Tapwrit.
In fact, the more I think about the Blue Grass, the more I think no one really ran.

Grade D: Spiral

There's not much to say about the Spiral. Fast and Accurate won it with an 82 Beyer that was by a significant margin the lowest in a final Derby prep this year. He won it over a weak field, and he won it on a synthetic surface that resembles the dirt surface on which the Derby will be run only in the sense that it is brown in color.

Grade Incomplete: U. A. E. Derby

The UAE Derby in which Thunder Snow edged Epicharis at the end of an entertaining stretch duel seemed from a visual sense a strongly run race. And my sense is it was, even if the 94 Beyer Figure the Beyer folks hung on that race (a number I've heard they feel is solid) doesn't quite support that conclusion. But even if this U. A. E. Derby was a good event, the problem with the race in general is it has yet to produce a Kentucky Derby starter who was by any measure competitive at Churchill Downs.