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It’s not melodramatic to say that the Kentucky Derby hopes of last year’s champion two-year-old male, Classic Empire, hinged on his performance in the Arkansas Derby (G1).

After a string of issues in the wake of his third as the 1-2 favorite in the February 4 Holy Bull (G2), he faced a race against time to get fit, both physically and mentally. Trainer Mark Casse had to sort out a hoof abscess, a brief back problem, and finally the colt’s refusal to work out a couple of times.

And then there was the question of Derby points. Classic Empire entered Saturday with 32 in his account, and he needed to earn more at Oaklawn Park to guarantee a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Otherwise, he’d be sweating it out on the “bubble” hoping for defections. Then again, if he failed to score in a race offering points on a sliding scale of 100-40-20-10 to the top four finishers, he probably wasn’t in shape to advance to Louisville anyway.

But in the span of exactly 1:48.93, Classic Empire rewrote the narrative: the champion was back!

Confidently handled by regular rider Julien Leparoux, the 9-5 favorite had to ease back from post 2 as a few of his rivals blasted to the fore. He angled out a bit to avoid being trapped on the inside, and still then found himself surrounded on all sides in the bunched-up field.

Classic Empire handled it all like a pro, advancing into contention turning for home and rallying strongly to collar Conquest Mo Money late in the 1 1/8-mile test. The champion won going away by a half-length and rewarded his loyalists with a $5.80 win payout.

Now sporting 132 Derby points, Classic Empire sits second on the leaderboard, with Louisiana Derby (G2) and Risen Star (G2) hero Girvin still on top with 150.

Conquest Mo Money, second in the Sunland Derby (G3), adds 40 more points to raise his total to 60. But he’s not Triple Crown nominated, so connections would have to supplement him for $200,000.

Lookin at Lee came charging from far back, while zig-zagging in the stretch, to grab third. The 20 points he garnered here now put him on the bubble with 32 on his resume.

Sonneteer, still a maiden, nevertheless rolled late again and took home 10 points for fourth. At 30 points all told, he’s one spot below Lookin at Lee on the leaderboard.

Hitherto unbeaten Malagacy is already assured of a Derby berth thanks to the 50 points he earned in the Rebel (G2). Yet after he tired late to fifth in the Arkansas Derby, and engaged in a weary-looking bumping match with Conquest Mo Money, stay tuned on plans for him.