Juvenile Kentucky horses dominate Juvenile as Classic Empire nips Not This Time
Romans: ‘I think we proved that you can run a good horse at Ellis Park’
By Jennie Rees
ARCADIA, Calif. — Based on Saturday’s $2 million Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the road to the Kentucky Derby so far is going through, well, Kentucky.
John Oxley’s Classic Empire held off favored Albaugh Family Stable’s Not This Time by a neck at Santa Anita Park to remain unbeaten in the four races he finished, which spans maiden and Grade 3 Bashford Manor wins at Churchill Downs and Keeneland’s Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity. His only defeat came in Saratoga’s Hopeful, when Classic Empire wheeled at the start and dumped his rider. Julien Leparoux, Keeneland’s fall-meet champ who missed the Hopeful with a broken wrist, now is 4 for 4 on the Pioneerof the Nile colt.
Meanwhile, Not This Time won an Ellis Park maiden race by 10 lengths and Churchill Downs’ Grade 3 Iroquois by 8 3/4, with trainer Dale Romans opting to skip the Breeders’ Futurity to train up to the Juvenile.
In fact, three of the top four horses came from Kentucky, with Lookin At Lee, the Ellis Park Juvenile winner who was second in the Iroquois and Breeders’ Futurity, finishing fourth, 4 1/4 lengths behind New York’s Champagne victor Practical Joke, who could come within only 7 1/2 lengths of Not This Time.
“This is unbelievable,” said Oxley, looking for his second Kentucky Derby winner to go with the late Monarchos’ 2001 triumph. “It’s what we've been hoping for for many years now, a horse that might replace Monarchos, whom we just lost. This horse is exceptional. I love him. But even more importantly, the jockey, Julien Leparoux, what a ride. Fantastic. Just perfect. It was flawless, and the team behind him, Mark Casse, Norman Casse, the entire organization works for each other. Also, to my sweet wife, Debby, she brings luck to the team.”
(Debby Oxley few up in the Louisville suburb of Shively and holds degrees from Eastern Kentucky and the University of Louisville, which named her 2013 Alumna of the Year.)
Casse said he’d talk with Oxley and develop a game plan for Classic Empire, but “obviously our goal is the first Saturday in May.”
Classic Empire tracked the pace set by Syndergaard, pulling even mid-way on the far turn and taking the lead rounding for home. He opened to a two-length lead in mid-stretch, but Not This Time was looming large after jockey Robby Albarado got him to the outside in upper stretch. Classic Empire finished 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.60, paying $11 as the second choice,with Not This Time the favorite at just under 3-1.
“We wanted to win here, we wanted to be 2-year-old champion really bad,” said Romans, the lifelong Louisvillian who trains Not This Time and has become the biggest cheerleader for running young horses at Ellis Park. “We got beat by a good horse, no excuses. The only fallback is we’re going to be a Derby favorite turning the corner for 2017. We’ll be one of the favorites. That deck is going to shuffle many times between now and May. But it’s good to have a horse of this quality going into it. Mark’s a good friend. He called me and said, ‘If I can’t win it, I hope you do.’ I said I felt the same way.
“We also wanted to win for Ellis Park. But I think we proved to people that you can run a good horse at Ellis Park.”
Albarado said he “wouldn’t trade place with anyone” looking ahead to next year.
“It’s funny: A couple of years ago I said, ‘I’m going to go to Ellis Park and find a Derby horse.’ And I think it’s coming together,” he said.
“… So many attributes to him. He’s physically talented, looks good. His mind is the only thing that’s behind a little bit. He really doesn’t have that down pat to grind it out, but that will come in time…. The minute I let up on him, he lets up. It feels like you have to continue to ride him the whole way, whole way once the running starts. There’s a lot of room for him to improve. I just hate to lose a close race like that; I feel like I should be the difference in some kind of way. I’ll look at the replay and see if I could do anything different. But this was a nice race for him. The winner is a very good horse.”
Lookin At Lee, equipped with blinkers that seemed to do little, came from last half-way through the race to earn a $100,000 check with fourth.
“He still has to mature, he’s just a baby,” said jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. He doesn’t know how to run yet. He ran pretty good on this track, for a horse coming from the back, he ran pretty hard. I really like him for the future. He should like the Kentucky Derby’s mile and a quarter.”
Casse and Leparoux had finished a close second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies when Stonestreet Stables’ Valadorna couldn’t quite catch Champagne Room. Casse said he was thinking about that through the stretch.
“At the top of the lane I was a little worried, because he'd never really opened up before too much, so I'm like, ‘well, maybe. I don't know how much I want him to open up,’” Casse said. “Then I thought, ‘Well, he's going to win by a couple lengths.’ And then towards about sixteenth pole I might have said a bad word because I could see that horse coming. You know, we had run second with Valadorna in the filly race, and she just couldn't get up. I'm like, ‘Oh, now it's the opposite way.’ But I'm just proud of how both of them ran today.”
Casse, who has trained for 37 years, said that when Classic Empire won the Bashford Manor in June that “it was the most impressive 2-year-old winner that I'd ever trained. I went into the Hopeful after Pretty City Dancer won the Spinaway, and these two had trained together. I knew that he was superior to her. I'm normally not a cocky guy, and this stopped me again for a couple years. But I said to a few people that day, we're going to win the Hopeful today, it's just a matter of how far.
“Then of course he put me back into reality and put me -- so I'm not going to say that again for a few more years.”
Casse said such challenges made his third Breeders’ Cup victory even more special.
“He's an extremely, extremely smart horse, and he tends to see things that maybe others don't, and you never know what he's going to kind of do,” he said. “But we added blinkers. We thought after his first two performances where he ran really great, it would have been nice to put some blinkers on him. But normally they don't allow you to put blinkers on horses that are winning. So after the Hopeful, Norman and I were watching him cool out, and we looked at each other and said, ‘I think we can put blinkers on him now.’”
Leparoux said of the blinkers: “There is a big, big difference since the blinkers are on. He's way more focused. The first two starts he was not breaking sharp from the gate. Since we put blinkers, he's been pretty keen to race from the beginning. It's a big change, and he's a very, very nice horse. We go fast, but you don't feel like you go fast on him, so looking forward for next year for sure.”