Classic Empire leads field in run-up to 2017 Kentucky Derby

Classic Empire prepares for the Kentucky DerbyThe 143rd annual Kentucky Derby on Saturday marks the start of Triple Crown season, with a field of 20 horses racing to take the first step towards becoming the next American Pharoah. This year’s field offers plenty of speed and racing pedigree, headlined by odds leader Classic Empire.

A local horse with plenty of race wins under his belt and a shared lineage with American Pharoah, Classic Empire’s earnings have already surpassed $2 million, which is a record for Derby starters. He placed first in three of four pre-Derby circuit races over the last year, with one third-place finish in February due to a foot abscess. Classic Empire should be very familiar with the Churchill Downs grounds after racing there often earlier in his career, and his owner, John Oxley, is a previous Derby champion from 2001.

Riding Classic Empire will be Julien R. Leparoux, who has more than a decade of experience. His challenge will be managing Classic Empire’s pace over the 1-1/4 miles race distance, which has been the downfall of horses with similar racing styles in the past. Father-son training team Mark and Norman Casse appeared to have Classic Empire back in pristine shape for April’s victory at the Arkansas Derby, putting to rest any lingering injury concerns from February.

The horse that beat Classic Empire in February was Irish War Cry, who is another serious contender. Irish War Cry’s trainer worked with 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom and his lineage suggests he has the stamina to easily handle the race distance. A seventh-place finish in March raised some doubts about his chances, but only enough to give him the fourth-best odds of winning on Saturday.

The two horses tied for the second-best odds are Always Dreaming—the son of a Derby runner-up and ridden by a former Derby winner—and McCraken, who was considered this year’s frontrunner prior to a third-place finish at the Blue Grass Stakes. Always Dreaming was a bit of a late bloomer, but he has been great in 2017 and is only getting better, beating two other Derby qualifiers by five lengths in April and displaying the pace necessary for the Derby’s length.

Saturday’s forecast calls for showers in the afternoon in Louisville, which could level the playing field with a sloppy track.