After John C. Oxley’s Classic Empire recovered from a sluggish start to catch the brilliantly fast Recruiting Ready in Saturday night’s Bashford Manor (G3) at Churchill Downs, the 2017 Kentucky Derby (G1) buzz was off and running.

That’s only natural, since Classic Empire is an undefeated son of Pioneerof the Nile – the same sire as 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

But assistant trainer Norman Casse, who oversees his father Mark’s Churchill string, upped the ante by mentioning Classic Empire in the same breath as American Pharoah.

“He reminds me of American Pharoah,” the younger Casse said, as reported in Ed DeRosa’s blog. “Nothing rattles him.”

The second half of that quote provides the all-important context, since direct comparisons of ability are obviously premature. But a bombproof temperament is a definite plus, both to navigate the many kinds of learning experiences as a 2-year-old and to cope with the hurly-burly of the Derby trail at 3.

Also like American Pharoah, Classic Empire is out of a Storm Cat-line mare. Hence in pedigree jargon, they’re bred on a similar “cross,” meaning that they share the pattern of a certain sire line over the dam’s male line.

But in other respects, Classic Empire is shaping up as a very different type of runner. Unlike “Pharoah,” whose lethal weapon was his high speed, Classic Empire has won both of his starts from off the pace. At this point, that’s partly because he’s putting himself behind by breaking slowly from the gate. As Classic Empire becomes more professional, he’ll learn how to get off to a clean start. He’s also managed to draw the rail post in both of his starts, so an outside post could help a lot.

Still, as Norman Casse noted, Classic Empire isn’t going to blast off. He prefers to gather his momentum and wind up:

“I think that the way that he breezes and trains in the morning, he is more effective when he’s able to go out and relax and settle into stride. Sprinting is obviously something where you aren’t able to do that, so going forward, he’s going to be more effective around two turns.”

It’s a sizeable clue to Classic Empire’s raw ability that he’s two-for-two despite racing over distances that are short for him. In his May 4 debut, also at Churchill, the bay rallied in the slop to win going away at 4 1/2 furlongs. The Bashford Manor offered more ground as a 6-furlong sprint, but it also presented a higher level of competition.

Recruiting Ready had earned 1-2 favoritism on the strength of his sensational, 10-length debut victory at Pimlico. The Maryland shipper again flashed his blistering speed on Saturday night, twice hurled back challenges from the promising Tip Tap Tapizar, and opened up down the stretch. In a typical running of the Bashford Manor, Recruiting Ready would have been a big winner.

But this was no ordinary Bashford Manor. Classic Empire, at least seven lengths back after his awkward start, whizzed up the inside on the turn and made headway into the stretch. His deficit was reduced to four lengths in midstretch, but still appeared too daunting to overcome with only a furlong to go. The farther they went, however, the faster he was gaining on Recruiting Ready. The margin was shrinking with every stride. 

Not only did Classic Empire get there in time. He blew by to win by three-quarters of a length, clocking the second-fastest time (1:09.39) in stakes history. The Bashford Manor record of 1:09.15 was set in 2007 by Kodiak Kowboy, who went on to become that year’s Canadian champion 2-year-old colt and the US champion sprinter in 2009.

Recruiting Ready ran a mighty race in defeat, after setting such a torrid pace and making multiple moves. Although his shortening stride late could be interpreted as tiring a bit, trainer Horacio DePaz believes it was more a case of idling in front and losing focus.

“He just ran fast early and got caught at the end,” DePaz said. “(Jockey) Edgar (Prado) said he was a little spotty coming down the front side – kind of running on-and-off.  Once that other horse (Classic Empire) engaged him galloping out he jumped back in the bridle and galloped out with him. It was probably a little bit of a lack of experience, and he’d never been under lights. 

“He obviously can run really fast. We’ve just got to harness it a bit at the beginning and not let him lollygag at the end.”

Norman Casse was highly complimentary of Recruiting Ready as well, saying, “I really have a whole lot of respect for the horse that he (Classic Empire) beat.”

Thus the Bashford Manor winner and the runner-up both look potentially special. Classic Empire shapes up as the more exciting 2017 Kentucky Derby contender, both on pedigree and running style. But even if Recruiting Ready ultimately turns out to be a top sprinter/miler, his talent can carry him a long way on the Derby trail too. 

Photo courtesy Churchill Downs/Coady Photography