John C. Oxley’s Classic Empire jumped all the way from 21st on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard to second following a gutsy half-length victory in Saturday’s $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park.

The bay son of Pioneerof the Nile didn’t have the cleanest of trips early in the nine-furlong contest, bobbling at the start and steading first time under the wire. Jockey Julien Leparoux steered Classic Empire into the clear about three wide and the duo settled into a tracking position as Grandpa’s Dream, Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy dueled through splits of :22.75, :46.92 and 1:11.16.

Classic Empire stayed wide rounding the final turn and rallied to catch Conquest Mo Money in the lane for the half-length victory. The Mark Casse trainee completed 1 1/8 miles over the fast Oaklawn main track in 1:48.93 to earn 100 points toward a starting berth in the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1).

The Arkansas Derby is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby series of points races and was worth 100-40-20-10 points to the respective top four finishers. Classic Empire stamped his ticket with the victory, and paid $5.80 as the 9-5 favorite.

Conquest Mo Money was the only early runner who stuck around at the end, holding second by length over Lookin at Lee. He earned 40 points and now boasts 60 total points after also finishing second in the March 26 Sunland Derby (G3), but is currently not nominated to the Kentucky Derby.

After rallying from near the back of the 12-strong field, Lookin at Lee angled in nearing the furlong marker then back out again. He grabbed third by a half-length over Sonneteer, which bumped him to 22nd on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard with 32 total points.

Sonneteer is still a maiden after this, his 10th career start, and is one spot behind Lookin at Lee in 23rd on the Leaderboard with 30 total points. The dark bay colt previously finished second in the Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn.

Rebel winner Malagacy suffered his first career loss in this spot, just missing fourth by a neck. Untrapped was next under the wire, holding his spot by a neck over Silver Dust, who was followed by Rowdy the Warrior, Petrov, One Dreamy Dude, Grandpa’s Dream and Rockin Rudy.

Classic Empire is now 7-5-0-1 in his career and has banked $2,120,220 in lifetime earnings. The bay colt scored in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and Bashford Manor Stakes (G3) as a two-year-old, and finished third when making his sophomore debut in the February 4 Holy Bull Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park.

Various problems arose after that start, including a hoof abscess and sore back, but Classic Empire proved himself back in fighting form with this score.

Bred in Kentucky by Steven and Brandi Nicholson, Classic Empire is out of the Cat Thief mare Sambuca Classica, making him a half-brother to multiple stakes winners Anytime Magic and Uptown Twirl.

ARKANSAS DERBY QUOTES

Mark Casse, trainer Classic Empire, winner

“He just has so much ability. I knew if we could get him here that he’d be tough. He’s been a challenge, but the last month and a half have been good – a lot of chapters to the book I’m writing (laughs).

“What can you say about the Oaklawn crowd. There are very few crowds like Oaklawn. They love the horse. As a trainer, you want to be around people who love horse racing. That’s what you do this for.”

Was it nerve-wracking? Exciting? Were you tense?

“I was pretty nervous. We run a lot of places, but I was probably a little more nervous. I went and walked up and down inside, watched it on TV. About the eighth-pole everybody around me started looking, because I was doing some yelling. I wasn’t sure he was going to get there. I was afraid that maybe late he’d get tired. But it was exciting. I’ll never forget it.”

Flies back to Louisville, Kentucky, on Monday?

“That’s home for him. We’ll get him back there and come up with a game plan. I think the toughest deal is over, getting to this point. Now he won’t have to do too much going into the (Kentucky) Derby (G1).”

Would you have been satisfied if he had been second, because it would have accomplished what you wanted?

“I would have been. That thought went through my head about the eighth-pole. I said, ‘He’s running well. If he runs 1-2-3, that’s OK, second or third.’ But I never gave up. I was still wanting him to win, but that thought did go through my head.”

What’s it mean to win a race like this for the Oxleys?

“They’ve brought us to a new front. The Oxleys have put so much confidence in myself and my team, you want to reward that confidence. And today was a little bit of the reward.”

John Oxley, owner Classic Empire, winner

Did you think he could do this today?

“I did late last year because we’d just won the (Breeders’ Cup) Juvenile (G1) and were two-year-old champion. So there was a lot of confidence there. But we ran into a few issues, and thanks to the genius of Mark Casse – brilliant trainer – we found the solution. We had Julien (Leparoux) aboard; he stayed with us of course. We found a rider named Martin (Rivera). I think he was the wild card. The horse respected him, he trained so well with him and here we are.”

Asked if he can hold back that smile of going to the Kentucky Derby?

“No. I cannot. I hope it will be on there. I hope it doesn’t crack, that it stays with me. And it will.”

Monarchos, the Oxleys’ 2001 Kentucky Derby winner, was second in his final prep, the Wood Memorial, and some people got off him. How will it be different this time with him being the two-year-old champion?

“I think people will probably stay with him (Classic Empire). That makes it all the bigger challenge, because we sort of like to be behind the radar a little bit. But on the other hand, I’d rather win all the way into the Derby, and that’s the way we are right now.”

You appeared to be scaling back your racing operation until you hooked up with Mark Casse several years ago

“We’ve come from Mark’s leadership in Canada down to the (United) States. I did pretty well up there for a while, too, while I was unknown anymore here (smiles). But now we’re rallying back into the game. It’s awesome. I’m a stayer. When Assault won the ’46 Derby, I was a few years old listening to it on my little radio. The Derby captured me then, and it has every year since.”

Nervous?

“Any owner who goes to a Grade 1 Derby prep would have to be a little bit nervous. And I filled the bill. It felt really great the last 30 seconds.”

Does winning the Kentucky Derby once make you want to win it again just that much more?

“You know, I think I’d say no right away. Because you just want to rejoice and you’re so overwhelmed with the joy of winning the Derby. You want to just keep replaying the experience. A little bit later on, you begin to think about, ‘Well, I don’t deserve to win another.’ Because once in a lifetime for anyone is awesome. But then being competitive, you have to get back in the game and you have to try. I just want to be in the game, be in the hunt, be in the race. I don’t have to win it.”

Debby Oxley, owner Classic Empire, winner

Were you nervous?

“Oh, my knees were about ready to give out. I was standing on those stairs, watching the race and was like, ‘Oh gosh, I hope I don’t fall over and take six people with me.’ No, I was really, really nervous. We all agreed – and I think Mark said it perfectly in an interview earlier this week – everything has been done that could be done that could be done. He was either going to go out and perform, or he wasn’t. It was out of our control, our hands.”

Julien Leparoux, jockey Classic Empire, winner

Trainer Mark Casse wasn’t sure you would get up in time, did you think that as well?

“Was I concerned? He wasn’t 100 percent today, so I was expecting him to be a little tired. But he’s a nice horse. I wanted to have a nice race for him. To be in the (Kentucky) Derby, I knew I had to be in the top four. I think he’s a special horse. Hopefully now there’s no more hiccups and we go to the Derby in a clear (path), and I think we can win it.”

How much better was he today than when he was third in the Holy Bull?

“Much better. He walked in the gate and relaxed. He took me to the race. Usually he is a little keen and today he was, which is a good sign for him. In the Holy Bull he was just not himself, I was laying third, but I didn’t feel like I had too much horse at that time. So today I knew I was loaded. I just needed to get there.”

With all that the horse has been through, how did you guys not lose faith?

“It was a tough winter, I am not going to lie. Come January we expected so much from him and after the Holy Bull he just went downhill from there. It was hard to see whenever we got off the wagon, but at the same time we were running out of time. Today was the last race we could get before the Derby (Kentucky), so it was very important for us to get in. Mark and his team did an awesome job, so the credit goes to them.”

There was a lot of speed in the race, and people thought he might have a trip problems, but he seemed to do what you wanted him to do?

“He is a very professional animal. He was a little fresh today, pulling a little bit, but other than that he did very good.”

Jorge Carreno, jockey Conquest Mo Money, second

“I have been that horse and that was the best he ever felt, I think he is going to get better and better. All I can say is he is a warrior, a fighter, he doesn’t give up. He gave me all he got to the end, same as he did in the Sunland Derby (G3). This is a special horse, the best one I have ever been on since I started riding. And I fully believe he will keep getting better. I am just going to keep working and hope to get to the Kentucky Derby. I thought I had it.”

Miguel Hernandez, trainer Conquest Mo Money, second

“Oh, my God, it's so exciting. I want to say 100 yards from the wire, I said, 'I got it, I got it, I got it.' It was exciting. Right by the three-quarter pole, I thought he was going to quit. He came back. I'm happy with the way he ran.”

Steve Asmussen, trainer Lookin at Lee, third

“He’s a tremendous horse. He’s just been so fun. He just shows up. He’s sixth 70 yards from the wire. I mean, he never quits trying, and you’d love to see him rewarded for that effort.”

Will prepare toward Derby as if he will get in

“The good news is we’re stabled at Churchill. He will fly to Louisville on Monday.”

On Untrapped, sixth as the third choice

“Disappointed with the end result. Had a little bit of a wide trip and didn’t stay on.”

Luis Contreras, jockey Lookin at Lee, third

“Well yeah he got up perfectly so nice and comfortable. I swinged to the outside and I didn’t want to lose momentum so I didn’t drop inside.  I thought I was going to get to the inside but he was kind of dead.  I pulled outside and he started to run again, I don’t know. It was a perfect race, he tried so hard.”

Julie Clark, assistant trainer Sonneteer, fourth

“Still a maiden, but he's knocking on the door. He keeps improving and keeps showing a little bit more. (Jockey) Kent (Desormeaux) was ultra-impressed. He hasn't been on him for a race or two, and he was super impressed with him.”

Javier Castellano, jockey Malagacy, fifth

“I felt a little disappointed about the post, they didn’t give me a chance to load the horse.  As soon as he loaded they broke out of the gate. I think he lost a little of momentum there. I had to use a little bit to get him into position. He gave me a good run, he is a fighter, he fought all the way to the end. I mean I am not disappointed at all, he gave me great effort and I am so proud of the horse. You don’t see too many horses fighting all the way to the end and he did it.

“Unfortunately the 11 horse he kind of drifted a little bit he turned it up a little bit and (Malagacy) had to fight back and lost a little bit of momentum. Very fortunate for the outside horse, he went by clear. My horse had to fight the battle all the way to the end and I think it cost him in the race a little bit.”