Horse Racing

Too soon for mint juleps, but Derby hopefuls set to battle at Gulfstream

Julien Leparaoux atop Classic Empire wins the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile horse race at Santa Anita, California on Nov. 5, 2016.
Julien Leparaoux atop Classic Empire wins the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile horse race at Santa Anita, California on Nov. 5, 2016. AP

One week after Arrogate and California Chrome put the spotlight on Gulfstream Park, the track returns to its signature calling: showcasing 3-year-olds pointing for the Kentucky Derby.

And the focus Saturday will be on Classic Empire, a once-beaten colt and the nation’s top-ranked Derby contender. He’ll likely go off the heavy favorite when he makes his 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull Stakes, his first step on the road to the Triple Crown.

"We’re ready, all systems are ‘go,’" said trainer Mark Casse.

Classic Empire won four of his five races last year, capping off his stellar campaign with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Eclipse Award honors as the champion 2-year-old of 2016.

Should capture the Kentucky Derby on May 6, he’ll become the third straight juvenile champion to win the Run for the Roses, following in the paths of American Pharoah and Nyquist.

The last time racing experienced a run of three successive 2-year-old champions continuing on to win the Derby was from 1976-78 when Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid pulled it off.

Then again, there was a stretch from 1979-2005 when no horse did it.

Casse said he’s feeling more anxious about the $350,000 Holy Bull than he did a week ago when he saddled Noble Bird in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup, the richest race in thoroughbred history.

Noble Bird, a long shot, finished off the board, well behind Arrogate.

"Last week we ran in a $12 million race, but there was no pressure," Casse said. "Saturday it’s a $350,000 race and there’ll be tons of pressure. We’ll definitely be feeling it for sure."

Classic Empire is the 3-5 morning-line favorite in the Holy Bull field of nine. And for good reason.

In addition to the Breeders’ Cup, the John Oxley-owned colt won two other stakes. His only loss came in the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga when he wheeled at the start and threw his rider.

Jockey Julien Leparoux will receive the assignment Saturday on Classic Empire.

"He’s such an athlete," Casse said of Classic Empire. "What makes him so good is the way he moves. 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. He’s always ready to pounce."

Classic Empire’s primary competition is expected to come from Fact Finding and Gunnevera. Fact Finding is unbeaten in three races, including a 7-length victory Dec. 10 in a small stakes at Gulfstream. Gunnevera has won three of his past four races, the lone defeat occurring Oct. 8 at Keeneland when he finished nearly seven lengths behind Classic Empire.

"You’re "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.

"You’re always anxious off a layoff to get going," Casse said of Classic Empire, who has not raced in three months. "Right now, we’re just concentrating on the Holy Bull. It’s one step at a time."