Kentucky Derby Prep Analysis: Classic Empire may be vulnerable, but there are few attractive alternatives in the Arkansas Derby


Oaklawn | Race 11 | Post Time 6:18 p.m. (CT) | Go To The FREE TimeformUS PPs

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The Grade 1, $1 million Arkansas Derby has drawn a large field of 12 runners despite last year’s 2-year-old male champion, Classic Empire, being the headline attraction. That is primarily due to Classic Empire’s irregular preparation leading up to the first Saturday in May. Missed races and workouts have cast doubt over his participation in the race – let alone his status as the leading contender.

Classic Empire faces a slew of runners exiting the Rebel Stakes, which featured a wild finish in which the first six finishers crossed the wire within four lengths of each other. Malagacy was able to retain his undefeated record in that race, but he was hardly dominant in doing so and still has some questions to answer as he tackles Classic Empire while attempting to once again fend off the foes who chased him home last time.


The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace due to the presence of a few key speed types. Those include Classic Empire (#2), Petrov (#4), and Malagacy (#12). While the Pace Projector indicates that any of those three is fast enough to lead the field early, it seems far more likely that Rockin Rudy (#1) will be sent to the lead from the rail as he stretches out off a series of sprint races. Late runners like Sonneteer and Lookin At Lee, who were able to make mild late impacts closing into the moderate pace of the Rebel, may get more favorable setups this time.

Let’s go through the entire field:

#1, ROCKIN RUDY (12-1): This California speedball has been campaigned exclusively on turf since he was acquired by Reddam Racing and trainer Doug O’Neill. He did show an affinity for dirt when impressively winning his debut at Del Mar last summer, but that was over 5 1/2 furlongs. He figures to lead the way early, but I’m pretty dubious about his ability to sustain his speed over nine furlongs.

#2, CLASSIC EMPIRE (8-5): Classic Empire is a difficult favorite to assess. If he runs back to his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile effort, he will win this race decisively and advance to the Kentucky Derby as the reinstated favorite. However, there are plenty of reasons to have doubts about whether he can recapture that form. His lone start as a 3-year-old resulted in a disappointing performance as the favorite in the Holy Bull. The form of that race has proven to be strong, as Irish War Cry eventually won the Wood Memorial and Gunnevera returned to win the Fountain of Youth. However, Classic Empire was no match for either of those rivals.

He apparently was not acting like himself coming out of that race, and there were legitimate concerns that he might have to be taken off the Kentucky Derby trail entirely. Yet according to his connections, things have turned around in the past month. He’s gotten back into a regular training regimen, and he’s been acting like his old self again. This can be a temperamental horse – one who refused to even participate in last summer’s Hopeful at Saratoga – but he is one of the most talented members of this crop when he has his mind on running. I can’t give him an enthusiastic endorsement, but I also have trouble backing any one of his rivals given the disparity in talent between him and the rest of the field. He’s the tepid choice in a frustrating race.

#3, SILVER DUST (20-1): This colt has been on the brink of breaking through in one of these prep races. He encountered minor traffic trouble in the Southwest before rallying through the stretch to just miss third. Then, last time in the Rebel, he came with a steady late run but again finished just outside the top three. Trainer Randy Morse is adding blinkers in hopes of getting him to focus, but the concern is that they may make him even more eager in the early going, which has been an issue in his prior starts. While it would be a stretch to pick him to beat Classic Empire, he is the kind of horse who could move into the trifecta here if he continues his steady progression. He’s definitely one to use underneath.

#4, PETROV (12-1): This colt looked poised to make a major splash on the Triple Crown trail after a runner-up finish in the Southwest, in which he finished far ahead of the rest of the field while no match for One Liner, who has since been sent to the sidelines. Yet Petrov could not sustain that momentum in the Rebel, finishing a close fourth, just two noses out of the runner-up spot. While the placing was not an issue, the Rebel was a relatively slow race from a speed-figure perspective and a clear regression off his prior effort. Some questions still remain about his willingness to stretch out in distance, and I’m inclined to side with other Rebel also-rans who project to appreciate the added ground.

#5, GRANDPA’S DREAM (30-1): This recent maiden winner has never run fast enough to be competitive here and appears to be overmatched. 

#6, LOOKIN AT LEE (15-1): You could say he’s been the disappointment of this Oaklawn series. After some encouraging 2-year-old results, including a second-place finish to Classic Empire in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity and a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup, he was considered one of the top 3-year-olds based at Oaklawn this winter. However, he’s failed to make much of an impact in two starts. He was running on late in both the Southwest and Rebel, but neither of those races featured dynamics that were conducive to a pace collapse, which is what he really needs.

Like Silver Dust, he’s not exactly a winning type, but the extra half-furlong he gets here should work in his favor. If the pace is as fast as the Pace Projector is predicting, some of his Rebel foes may fall victim to this more demanding trip. For that reason, he’s one whom I want to use prominently in exotic wagers.

#7, SONNETEER (15-1): This maiden worked out a great trip in the Rebel, never having to leave the rail for any significant period of time as he snuck into second place inside of Petrov, creating a gigantic exacta payout. While maidens are usually at a disadvantage in these kinds of races, it should not have come as that great of a surprise that he was competitive in the Rebel. After all, five of the runners who beat him in the maiden ranks participated in last Saturday’s packed Santa Anita Derby field. So, can he now replicate that Rebel success, and do you want him at a much shorter price this time? I’m somewhat skeptical and would instead lean toward horses like Lookin At Lee and Silver Dust, but I certainly could use him as a backup option in exotic wagers.

#8, ROWDY THE WARRIOR (30-1): He was uncompetitive in the Southwest and could not even handle a softer allowance group last time. This is a tall order. 

#9, UNTRAPPED (6-1): Like Petrov, it’s fair to question how far this son of Trappe Shot really wants to go. He made menacing stretch moves in both the Risen Star and Rebel but seemed to flatten out in the final furlong of both races. Steve Asmussen now calls upon Mike Smith to get the best out of this colt before a potential start in the Kentucky Derby.

You have to admire his consistency, as he has never finished out of the money and has placed in three straight Derby preps. However, I doubt he has the stamina to wear down an in-form Classic Empire, and horses like Silver Dust and Lookin At Lee figure to relish this nine-furlong distance more. I can’t completely dismiss him, but I don’t see the value here.

#10, ONE DREAMY DUDE (50-1): This hopeless longshot is unlikely to be a factor at any point. 

#11, CONQUEST MO MONEY (15-1): This overachieving Sunland Park invader put in a valiant effort in that track’s premier race last month. He made the first move into a strong early pace and finished far ahead of the rest of his competitors while no match for the late-running Hence. That race came up reasonably fast, but we should keep in mind that Hence finished far up the track in the Southwest this winter, behind many of today’s foes. Conquest Mo Money has made the most of his opportunities so far, but this looks like too great of a class hike. 

#12, MALAGACY (2-1): I had underestimated this colt heading into the Rebel. Even though he had beaten overmatched foes at Gulfstream, he accomplished his wins in fast time with something left in the tank. That became clear as he easily handled the stretch-out to two turns in the Rebel, turning away multiple challenges to record a hard-fought but decisive victory. However, now the waters get even deeper. The Rebel was not a particularly fast race, and he would need to improve by leaps and bounds to match Classic Empire at that one’s best.

Furthermore, Malagacy is yet another colt who doesn’t exactly figure to keep improving as the distances get longer. He worked out an absolutely perfect trip in the Rebel, and now he must overcome the outside post in this 12-horse field with a few key pace players drawn to his inside. I now know better than to underestimate Todd Pletcher runners in these Kentucky Derby prep races, but I can’t help but take a stand against this overrated colt at a short price. 


I do not relish the notion of picking Classic Empire (#2), but I just cannot find a viable alternative among his 11 Arkansas Derby rivals. Rather, I’m going to attempt to get longshots Silver Dust (#3) and Lookin At Lee (#6) into exactas and trifectas behind the heavy favorite while looking to beat co-favorite Malagacy.

Exacta Box: 2,3,6

Trifecta: 2 with 3,6 with 3,4,6,7,9,12

Trifecta: 2 with 4,7,9,12 with 3,6

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1 Response to Kentucky Derby Prep Analysis: Classic Empire may be vulnerable, but there are few attractive alternatives in the Arkansas Derby

  1. G.K. McDougall says:

    Concise, informative and an accurate assessment of the Arkansas Derby. My choice in Rebel was Malagacy; I intend to ride him through Triple Crown, including in the Arkansas Derby.



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