Classic Empire, Practical Joke live up to expectations in Derby preps

Oct 09, 2016 Jennifer Caldwell/

Classic Empire and Practical Joke would have nearly identical records of being three-for-three if not for Classic Empire dumping his rider at the start of the Hopeful Stakes (G1) at Saratoga in early September.

That’s the only blemish on the Pioneerof the Nile colt’s record, which was enhanced on Saturday with a three-length victory in the Breeders’ Futurity Stakes (G1) at Keeneland.

Meanwhile, Practical Joke ran his scorecard to a perfect three-for-three when gutting out a nose score in the Champagne Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park.

Both races are part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series of events that offer points to the top four for a starting berth in next spring’s “Run for the Roses.” The Breeders’ Futurity and Champagne were each worth 10 points to their respective winners.

The contests are also “Win & “You’re In” races offering an all-expenses paid trip to Santa Anita Park for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) on November 5.

The Champagne went off first and saw near 3-1 fourth choice Practical Joke duck in at the break under Joel Rosario as near 2-1 favorite Syndergaard slid up to take command out of the gate. The latter set splits of :22.74, :44.63 and 1:08.76, and appeared well on his way to adding a second straight stakes win to his resume.

Practical Joke would have something to say about that, though. Moving up under Joel Rosario, the bay Into Mischief colt engaged Syndergaard in the lane and refused to back down. He was carried out by that rival in the shadow of the wire, but still managed to get his head down at the crucial moment – on the wire – to capture the one-mile affair by a nose in a time of 1:34.68.

Trained by Chad Brown for Klaravich Stables and William Lawrence, Practical Joke earned a nice 97 BRIS Speed rating in the Champagne and will try to keep his mark perfect next out in the Breeders’ Cup. He could end up facing both Syndergaard again and his own stablemate Favorable Outcome, who finished third in the Champagne.

'They both came out of the race good,' Brown said. 'Practical Joke was very impressive overcoming that start and being able to come up in time and win a close decision. I also thought Favorable Outcome was probably a little too close to that fast of a pace for him. I think he's better making one run, it might have taken away some of his kick being that close, but I thought he ran well to stay on for third.'

The Breeders’ Futurity was a lot less eventful for the Mark Casse-trained Classic Empire. That juvenile stalked the pace set by 42-1 Wild Shot through splits of :23.38, :46.63 and 1:11.17 before taking over through a mile in 1:36.89. The John C. Oxley colorbearer easily drew off at that point with Julien Leparoux aboard, finishing three lengths clear of his closest rival while stopping the clock in 1:43.41 for 1 1/16 miles on Keeneland’s fast dirt.

Classic Empire was sent off the 8-5 favorite despite losing jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. at the start of the Hopeful last out. Prior to that contest, the bay captured the Bashford Manor Stakes (G3), for which he earned a 94 BRIS Speed rating, the same number he was awarded for the Breeders’ Futurity.

'This is a very, very talented horse,' stated Norman Casse, assistant to his father, Mark Casse. 'The day after the Hopeful (when he wheeled at the start and lost his rider), we got right to work on him. We put blinkers on him; we breezed him out of the gate several times. It paid dividends today. We’ll more forward from here. You’ve got to think this horse has plenty of room to improve.'

That improvement happened Saturday and could continue on into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Classic Empire will join Casse’s string at Churchill Downs this week to begin his final preparations for the Juvenile before shipping to California.

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