What a strange trip to the Kentucky Derby this has been for Classic Empire. He was the dominant and impressive two-year-old champion, and unlike some horses that earn that honor he had the look of a true Kentucky Derby contender. It seemed like he was in cruise control. But then things got rocky. A terrible race. Injuries. Bad behavior. Spotty training. He went from incredible to very easy to doubt. In a salvation tale worthy of Disney, though, he finally returned to the track for the Arkansas Derby, and he did everything one could have hoped. It wasn't the best race of the prep season, but it was solid and impressive, and again Classic Empire is a top Derby contender. So, can he stick around this time? Or are we in for another windy and frustrating road ahead?
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Last race: Given all of the questions coming into the race, it's not surprising there were serious questions in the minds of bettors. Classic Empire was the Arkansas Derby favorite but far from an overwhelming one - Malagacy was actually favored until just before post time. Those who did maintain faith in him, though, were well rewarded. The race wasn't pretty, but that just makes the result more impressive. Classic Empire didn't get a great start, and he encountered traffic throughout the race. There were at least three times I counted where he encountered something that would have been a viable excuse for the horse to quit - times when many solid horses would have packed in the race. He didn't quit, though, and he had a whole lot left to give when asked at the top of the stretch. He dug in and slowly gained on the lead. Conquest Mo Money had the lead and it seemed like he felt he was free and clear, but Classic Empire snuck up on and past him, and he won by a solid half length. It was an impressive, professional performance, and the time was solid down the stretch. It wasn't a perfect race - the colt changed to the wrong lead late in the race, and I don't like seeing that - but given all that he had gone through, and the adversity he overcame in the race, I certainly see nothing to complain about.
Prior experience: It has been an interesting career for this colt. He has run seven times - five very nice wins and two disastrous disappointments. He broke his maiden in the first try at Churchill Downs three days before last year's Kentucky Derby. His second win was in graded stakes company at Churchill as well, so he clearly is comfortable on the track he will see next. Then came the first of the disaster races. He was favored in the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga, but he only barely made it out of the gate. This is an ill-tempered, willful colt that does only what he wants to do, and on that day he didn't want to run. He came out of the gate, took a sharp right turn soon after, and lost his rider just before he narrowly missed hitting the outer rail. He was vanned off in the equine ambulance, but ultimately he was fine. It was totally a lost race. He rebounded well, though, winning the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland easily, beating one and maybe two other Derby participants. He next went into the Breeders' Cup Juvenile as the second choice, and beat favorite Not This Time in a pretty epic stretch duel. After that, though, there were issues. He had an abscess in his foot that caused him to miss time. Compensating for the foot injury, he injured his back. That caused him to miss more time. He ran in the Holy Bull as heavy favorite and ran a very poor third. And when he was finally healthy and ready to prepare for his next race he refused to train - multiple times. He just wouldn't start running when he was supposed to. All sorts of issues - and that will make anyone who believes in this horse very nervous every second between now and the first Saturday in May.
Trainer: Mark Casse is likely to have two horses in this race - this one and long shot State of Honor. He has not won a Triple Crown race, but he has been named the top trainer in Canada eight different times, and he has won three Breeders' Cup races in the last two years, so he is capable of big-time performances. He is aggressively growing his American business, and he is wildly talented. He's going to win more than one of these races before he's done.
Jockey: Julien Leparoux has ridden this horse along with State of Honor and Irap, but he obviously and correctly has chosen this horse to be his Derby mount. Leparoux has frustratingly underachieved in Triple Crown races, but he has long been dominant in Kentucky, so he certainly will be comfortable on Derby day. He has won seven career Breeders' Cup races, including one each of the last two years, so he is capable on big days, and he has good chemistry with this horse - on days that the horse decides he wants someone to have chemistry with him. He's an asset here.
Breeding: The breeding here is sound. Classic Empire is a son of Pioneerof the Nile. That horse was second in the 2009 Derby but is best known for being the sire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. That's obviously a pretty big sign that this colt gets good stamina influences from his sire. Classic Empire's damsire is Cat Thief, a son of the great Storm Cat. Cat Thief was third in the 1999 Derby and now stands in Saudi Arabia. On both sides the pedigree offers plenty of what a horse needs to shine in the Triple Crown.
Odds: Oddsmakers really like that Arkansas Derby effort - at BetOnline Classic Empire is now installed as the +500 favorite, ahead of co-second choices McCraken and Always Dreaming at +600. That's a big improvement from the last Kentucky Derby future wager, held two weeks before the Arkansas Derby by Churchill Downs. At that time, Classic Empire went off at 10/1, which had him tied with Tapwrit as the fourth choice behind McCraken at 5/1, Always Dreaming at 6/1 and Gunnevera at 9/1.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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