Classic Empire will need more if the horse wants to win the Derby

Apr 18, 2017 3:06 AM

Although 2016 Juvenile Champion Classic Empire came through with a badly needed victory in the Arkansas Derby on Saturday, he will have to make a stronger forward move to win the 2017 Kentucky Derby.

Placed in between horses and a few lengths behind dueling leaders through the first 6 furlongs, Classic Empire rallied wide through the stretch as the 19-10 betting favorite to catch 19-1 shot Conquest Mo Money in the final strides to earn 100 Derby eligibility points. This assures Classic Empire a spot in the Derby starting gate. Nevertheless, the final clocking for the 1-1/8 miles was 1:48.93 on a very fast Oaklawn Park racing surface, which only was worth a 94 Beyer Speed Figure. That Figure was only a single point above the average winning Beyer for the majority of Derby preps this season!

Of equal interest, was the fact Conquest Mo Money’s second place finish validated my contention that Hence – winner of the low profile Sunland Park Derby – probably deserves more credit than many players might appreciate. That’s because Conquest Mo Money finished second in that March 26 Derby prep, nearly four lengths behind Hence. In Saturday’s race at Oaklawn, Conquest Mo Money also gained some stature for himself, by contesting the lead in the 12 horse field virtually every step of the way. This display of tenacious speed suggested a performance at least as good as Classic Empire’s.

Finishing third in the Arkansas Derby was Lookin At Lee, a persistent deep closer, who now has three in-the-money finishes in four different Derby preps. Given this colt’s stretch running style, Lookin At Lee might be a reasonable longshot to consider for Derby Day Superfectas. The same probably would be true for fourth place finisher Sonneteer, except for one huge problem.

With his late rally in the Arkansas Derby, Sonneteer only earned 10 Derby eligibility points. So, he will need several defections from the top 20 to get into the Kentucky Derby starting gate.

Otherwise, I doubt that a top finishing position in the 1-1/4 mile Kentucky Derby will be in the cards for Malagacy or Untrapped. Both horses did not look the part of serious Derby contenders in the Ark.Derby when they weakened noticeably in the final furlong to finish 5th and 6th respectively. Their failures were amplified by the fact that both horses were in perfect contending positions on the final turn.

Malagacy – undefeated in his three prior starts, including a victory over Sonneteer in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, March 18 – went into the Arkansas Derby as the strong $2.20-1 second betting choice. Untrapped, third in the Rebel and second in two prior stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, was third betting choice at $6.50-1 on Saturday. Given the way they both faded late on Saturday, I doubt either colt will deserve support for a top finishing position on Derby Day, unless they work sensationally during the final few weeks of preparation.

As most horseplayers know, the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland also was run on Saturday. While the winner Senior Investment caught West Coast on the wire in 1:45.05 for the 1-1/16 miles, there are only three important things to note about this race.

• The Lexington’s 10 Derby eligibility points for the winner did not help any horse get into the Kentucky Derby field.

• There was not a single stakes winner entered in the Lexington.

• Senior Investment and West Coast only earned an 89 Beyer Speed Figure.

Given the results of Saturday’s two Derby prep races and other related developments, my current pre-Derby list of contenders is in the box below. My final assessment will be the subject of my Derby week column on Tuesday, May 2.

Added notes: After One Liner failed to recover from his minor injuries, trainer Todd Pletcher announced last week the colt is out of the Derby… I have been invited to give a talk at Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minnesota on Saturday evening, April 29. It was more than 30 years ago, while working for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, that these “Across the Board” columns originated… On Friday evening, May 5, the day before the Kentucky Derby, I will co-host the annual Derby Seminar at the Sunset Station Hotel and Casino. Please contact racebook manager Chuck Esposito for more information.

My current Top Ten for the 2017 Kentucky Derby
  1. Always Dreaming won the Fla. Derby with reserve power. 
  2. Irish War Cry scored solid win in the Wood Memorial.
  3. Girvin won the Risen Star & La. Derby at the Fair Grounds.
  4. Gunnevera has good form; now gains Javier Castellano. 
  5. Classic Empire Desperately needed Saturday’s Ark.Derby win.
  6. Hence silently gained stature, as explained in this column.  
  7. State of Honor was 2nd to Always Dreaming in Fla. Derby.
  8. Irap scored big upset in Blue Grass stakes.
  9. Conquest Mo Money advanced as explained in this column.
10. McCraken won early season preps; was 3rd in the Blue Grass.