Eclipse Champion to Face Eight in Sophomore Debut
HALLANDALE BEACH, FL – John Oxley’s Classic Empire is slated to make his 3-year-old debut in Saturday’s $350,000 Lambholm South Holy Bull (G2) at Gulfstream Park, fresh off being honored as the outstanding 2-year-old male of 2016 at the recent Eclipse Awards dinner.
The sophomore son of Pioneerof the Nile brings a strong resume into the important 1 1/16-mile prep for the $1 million Florida Derby (G1) and the Triple Crown – a resume that trainer Mark Casse attributes to an exceptional level of athleticism.
“He’s such an athlete. What makes him so good is the way he moves. A really wise, one of the smartest horsemen I know in the world looked at him and said he looked like a panther. I think that’s the best way to describe him. I’m not going to say who it was, but he’s one of the best horsemen in the world, and he described him as a panther,” Casse said. “He’s always ready to pounce. You just don’t know what he’s going to pounce on, but so far he’s pounced on the competition.”
Classic Empire is scheduled to meet eight rivals in the Holy Bull in his first start since capping his 2-year-old season with a victory in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita Nov. 5. The Kentucky-bred colt has registered a strong series of workouts at Palm Meadows, Gulfstream’s satellite training facility in Palm Beach County, in preparation for his first step on the Road to the Triple Crown.
“You’re always anxious off a layoff to get going. We’re ready. All systems are ‘go.’ We’re excited to get going,” said Casse, who awarded the return mount aboard Classic Empire to Julien Leparoux. “It’s the first step.”
Classic Empire has assumed the role of Kentucky Derby winter book favorite on the strength of four victories from five starts, including stakes wins in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland and the Bashford Manor (G3) at Churchill Downs.
“I’ve kind of tried to block that out of my mind and not worry about it. Thankfully, we’ve had so much going on that I haven’t had much time to think about it. Right now, we’re just concentrating on the Holy Bull,” Casse said. “It’s one step at a time.”
Casse, who saddled Noble Bird for an off-the-board finish in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) at Gulfstream last Saturday, admits to feeling some pressure heading into the Holy Bull.
“Last week we ran in a $12 million race, but there was no pressure. Saturday it’s a $350,000 race and there’ll be tons of pressure,” he said. “We’ll definitely be feeling it for sure.”
Peacock Racing Stables’ Gunnevera is also set for his 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull. The multiple graded-stakes winner concluded a highly successful juvenile campaign with a last-to-first 5 ¾-length triumph in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot (G3) Nov. 19.
The Antonio Sano-trained colt, who broke his maiden at Gulfstream Park in July, captured the Saratoga Special (G2) at Saratoga in August.
“I’m very happy with him. He has trained very well. The race isn’t going to be easy, but I think he can win the race,” Sano said.
Between his graded-stakes triumphs, Gunnevera finished fifth behind Classic Empire after enduring a wide trip in the Breeders’ Futurity. The son of Dialed In sports a solid series of workouts at Gulfstream Park West in preparation for the Holy Bull.
“Gunnevera is a special horse,” Sano said. “He’s done everything I’ve wanted him to do. He’s 100 percent in condition.”
Javier Castellano, who was aboard for both graded-stakes wins, has the mount for the Holy Bull. Todd Pletcher-trained Fact Finding is scheduled to seek his fourth victory without a defeat in the Holy Bull. Owned by Stonestreet Stables, Mrs. John Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, the son of The Factor broke his maiden at first asking by 2 ½ lengths at Saratoga in August before capturing an allowance race at Keeneland by 4 ½ lengths in October and scoring by seven lengths over a sloppy track in the one-mile Smooth Air Stakes at Gulfstream Dec. 10.
John Velazquez has the return mount aboard Fact Finding, who will be making his first start around two turns.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who captured the Holy Bull with Mohaymen last year and Cairo Prince in 2014, entered both Cavil and Shamsaan. Godolphin Racing’s Cavil is coming off a disappointing off-the-board finish in the Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream Jan. 7 after breaking his maiden with authority at Aqueduct. Shadwell Stable’s Shamsaan impressively broke his maiden at 1 1/16 miles in his fourth career start, an off-the-turf race run over a sloppy track at Gulfstream Dec. 19.
Jose Lezcano has been named to ride Cavil, while Luis Saez has the return mount aboard Shamaan.
Rounding out the Holy Bull field will be Talk Logistics, who finished third in the Mucho Macho Man; undefeated Irish War Cry, who captured the Marylander Stakes at Laurel Dec. 31 after debuting with a win Nov. 11; Fire for Effect, who won a 1 1/16-mile maiden test over a wet-fast surface at Gulfstream Jan. 7; and Perro Rojo, who finished off the board in the Mucho Macho Man.