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Classic Empire favored in tough Arkansas Derby

Classic Empire arrives (photo courtesy Oaklawn Park)

John Oxley’s champion Classic Empire is the 8-5 program favorite for the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) Saturday at Oaklawn, a 1 1/8-mile race that highlights the closing-day program.

Probable post time for the Arkansas Derby, the 11th of 12 races, is 6:18 p.m. (Central). Gates open at 10:30 a.m., with racing to begin at 12:30 p.m. Weather permitting, the infield will be open. Temperatures will top out near 80 degrees, with a slight chance of rain, according to Weather.com.

The Arkansas Derby will offer 170 points (100-40-20-10) to the top four finishers toward starting eligibility for the May 6 Kentucky Derby. The Kentucky Derby is limited to 20 starters, with points earned in designated races like the Arkansas Derby used to determine starting preference if the race oversubscribes.

The Arkansas Derby field from the rail out: Rockin Rudy, Mario Gutierrez to ride, 118 pounds, 12-1 on the morning line; Classic Empire, Julien Leparoux, 122; Silver Dust, Corey Lanerie, 118, 20-1; Petrov, Ricardo Santana Jr., 118, 12-1; Grandpa’s Dream, Alex Canchari, 118, 30-1; Lookin At Lee, Luis Contreras, 122, 15-1; Sonneteer, Kent Desormeaux, 118, 15-1; Rowdy the Warrior, Luis Quinonez, 118, 30-1; Untrapped, Mike Smith, 118, 6-1; One Dreamy Dude, Geovanni Franco, 118, 50-1; Conquest Mo Money, Jorge Carreno, 122, 15-1; and Malagacy, Javier Castellano, 122, 2-1.

Classic Empire, the country’s champion 2-year-old male, has 32 points to rank 21st on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. The son of Pioneerof the Nile won 4 of 5 starts last year, including the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) Nov. 5 at Santa Anita to clinch divisional honors.

But, the Florida-based Classic Empire has started only once this year, finishing third in the $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes (G2) Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park. His campaign has been limited by a foot abscess, back issue and twice reportedly refusing to work.

“Whatever happens, happens,” said assistant trainer Norman Casse, the son of the colt’s trainer, Mark Casse. “Hopefully, best-case scenario, he runs a bang-up race, gets some fitness, gets enough points and then we can feel really comfortable that he will be ready for the Derby.”

Norman Casse, who has been overseeing Classic Empire’s preparation this week at Oaklawn, said he believes the colt will benefit from an inside draw.

“He’s a horse that we send away and that’s what we’re going to do,” Casse said. “He’ll have a good forward position going into the first turn, and the rest is up to Julien.”

The top six finishers from the $900,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) at 1 1/16 miles March 18, the final major local prep for the Arkansas Derby, are also entered. Unbeaten Malagacy (3 for 3) returns from his south Florida-base for trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won the Arkansas Derby a record four times. Malagacy won the Rebel by two lengths in his stakes and two-turn debut.

A son of 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford, the speedy Malagacy has breezed twice at Palm Beach Downs Training Center since the Rebel.

“It’s kind of been just, you know, a steady stream of maintenance work since then, trying to emphasize stretching him out in distance a little bit, and he seems to have handled everything we asked of him so far,” Pletcher said. “We’ve been waiting for the Arkansas Derby since the Rebel, and knock on wood, everything’s gone according to plan.”

Sonneteer (a maiden), Untrapped, Petrov, Silver Dust and Lookin At Lee finished second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the Rebel. Conquest Mo Money finished second in the $800,000 Sunland Derby (G3) March 26 at Sunland Park in his last start.

The 12-race Arkansas Derby card also features the $750,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2), $400,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (G3) and $150,000 Northern Spur Stakes. Midnight Storm, the Santa Anita Handicap runner-up, is the even-money favorite for the Oaklawn Handicap, while Whitmore, third in last year’s Arkansas Derby will be the heavy favorite in the Count Fleet Sprint. California invader Cistron is the 2-1 favorite for the Northern Spur.

Saturday’s card is closing day of the 2017 racing season at Oaklawn.

--Courtesy Oaklawn Racing

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