Angel of Empire spent a good portion of last summer stabled and working over the Churchill Downs strip, but was deemed better suited to running elsewhere. He proved he belongs under the Twin Spires, in the feature on the first Saturday in May in particular, after a dominating performance in Saturday's $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park.
Although he had already been assured a position in the Kentucky Derby (G1) starting gate following a win in the Feb. 18 Risen Star (G2), the quality of that performance was still in doubt heading into the nine-furlong Arkansas Derby (G1). Angel of Empire, with Flavien Prat in the irons, started as fourth choice in the field of 10 at better than 9-2.
Settled in seventh through the opening half-mile, Angel of Empire made a bold, four-wide move into contention approaching the quarter pole. Never taking his foot off the gas after making the lead, Angel of Empire drew off to an impressive 4 1/4 length tally for owner Albaugh Family Stables and trainer Brad Cox. The final time was 1:49.68 over a fast track, with Angel of Empire returning $11.40 to his backers.
"Very impressed with this horse, how he ran today," Cox said. "He came home quick, and he's a horse that the longer the better."
In a scramble for the minor placings, 58-1 outsider King Russell finished second by a half-length over Reincarnate. A head farther back was 2.70-1 favorite Rocket Can, who had a half-length on Airtime. Red Route One, Two Eagles River, Interlock Empire, Harlocap, and Bourbon Bash completed the order of finish.
Angel of Empire earned 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, boosting his total to 154. King Russell, exiting a maiden win, earned 40 points, while Reincarnate increased his total from 15 to 30. Holy Bull (G3) winner Rocket Can went from 40 points to 60, while Airtime secured 10 points.
Angel of Empire has finished first or second in all five appearances on dirt, the first being maiden and allowance wins at Horseshoe Indianapolis. Those scores book-ended his only modest effort, a sixth-place run in a turf sprint at Kentucky Downs.
Angel of Empire has made three starts this season. Second best in the Smarty Jones S. at Oaklawn on New Year's Day, Angel of Empire rebounded with a one-length upset of the nine-furlong Risen Star at odds of 13-1.
"The older he's getting the better he's getting, bottom line," Cox said. "I think he really took to six weeks between races. He ran well here to start the year. Out of the Risen Star, I thought he was just maybe a little tucked up, a little tired. He's come around over the last three, four weeks. Now he's back in top form and very happy how he looked physically leading up to this."
A son of champion Classic Empire, who won the 2017 Arkansas Derby, Angel of Empire is out of Armony's Angel, by To Honor and Serve. A Pennsylvania-bred, he sold for $70,000 at Keeneland September.