The King Lives! Long Live the King!

It is only fitting that in this topsy-turvy runnerup to the 2017 Kentucky Derby everyone tethered to the Thoroughbred had to await until the last hurdle was cleared to find some clarity.

And we hope that we have seen the last of the impending-danger type drama that has accompanied this winter-racing season and that pre-Derby workouts, good and bad, all go without major incident.

There are no remaining prep races in the three weeks until reaching post time for Derby. But in the next two weekends, morning trials are needed to solidify what has been, to say the least, one of the more baffling playoffs season for three-year-olds ever.

Before examining the nuts and bolts of Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, a word about the team that surrounds the 2016 juvenile champion.

We’ve known trainer Mark Casse, the son of legendary horseman Norman Casse, for nearly four decades, when he first went out on his own with the Calumet horses, back in the day when they were festooned in the devil’s red and blue.

At my age, this gives me the right to say I’m very proud of the work he’s done with Classic Empire, without throwing shade on any other horseman I know and respect as they slouch their way towards Louisville, efforting to win nothing less than “America’s Race.”

However the future of this sport plays out, that tradition will continue. Many eyes will fill 10 minutes to post when a country hears “that song,” as the jockeys refer to the Stephen Foster classic ode to days gone by.

It takes creativity and confidence to deal with the never-before-seen circumstances that arise in this most unusual of pastimes, this unusual way to make a living. It also takes balls.

To send Classic Empire off to the tranquility of a farm to get better physically and to get the colt’s mind right was a masterstroke of old school horsemanship. And, of course, it helps when the equine you’re dealing with has all the tools.

In preparing to make an Arkansas Derby choice, we went back and reviewed the video of its major participants. Alas, it was unnecessary.

All that was needed was belief in the words Casse expressed on an NTRA conference call last week and a tape of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in which he defeated, in our view, the most talented challenger he has faced, the ill-fated Not This Time.

Not having raced since the Holy Bull, an event which saw him fall apart in the walking ring and balk badly pre-loading, Casse’s words rang true yesterday when he spoke of his colt’s courage. “He gave us no indication he was hurting [until 10 minutes prior to post time].”

The layup also had him very fresh, showing speed from the jump, forcing Julien Leparoux--who was a brilliant as his colt in Hot Springs--to wrangle him a bit from close quarters entering the lower turn before settling him between horses into the backstretch run.

The trip he had in the Arkansas Derby clearly would have defeated a lesser racehorse. Stoutly restrained while remaining three paths wide, surrounded on all sides, he remarkably stayed in the bridle throughout.

And then finally, after all that, once brought out into the clear at headstretch, to lower his body and run down an improving and formerly undefeated rival was the mark of a very good colt, perhaps the very best of his generation.

But that’s the thing about this game; you need to go out and prove it every time.

Whether or not coming back in three weeks off an enervating effort will took a toll in that final, unknown furlong is consideration for another day. But as for now, we will take the connections at the word:

The trainer said he was a bit concerned: "I was questioning his fitness down the lane…but he kept running.” Said the jockey: “I think maybe he wasn’t one-hundred percent ready for today…”

The cliché is that things happen for a reason, and a missed opportunity can turn out to be a blessing. If indeed he wasn’t wound as tightly as possible, his 19 rivals will find him the one to beat three weeks hence.

BETS N’ PIECES:
Alas, Malagacy didn’t stay the trip and according to a Tweet from the Antonio Sano barn, Javier Castellano, who has ridden Gunnevera since his two-year-old Delta Jackpot finally, will stay aboard the SoFla-based colt. Castellano rode Malagacy to his Arkansas Derby showing… Lookin at Lee did a pretty good Creator imitation yesterday and clearly is peaking. Stablemate Untrapped no longer appears on the come, still not-yet-ready for prime time—but he clearly didn’t save any ground, did he?

As a review of the G3 Lexington Stakes video indicates, it certainly appeared that runnerup West Coast was probably best. Losing ground much of the way from his extreme outside slip, Flavien Prat was compelled to make a wide and premature move on the far turn lest the race get away from him. We’re not sure he was nailed by relentless finisher Senior Investment because he was dead tired, lost focus, or both. We expect the Bob Baffert trainee to join the Triple Crown parade in Baltimore.

The final installment of HRI’s Triple Crown Rankings will appear later this afternoon. Happy Easter and Passover to all!