"Champion Two-Year Old: The Story of Classic Empire"

Updated: Apr 10, 2019

It is not often that the best two-year old of a crop can be defined so clearly. Horses of that age are still learning and growing into themselves and it sometimes takes until late in their two-year old season for a horse to begin to truly show his full potential. For Classic Empire, this was not the case. In 2016 he was unanimously voted Champion Two-Year Old after a dominating two-year old season.

Photo by CC Photography

Before Classic Empire was soaring down America’s tracks, he was just a foal in Kentucky. Breeders Steven and Brandi Nicholson had put careful consideration into his pedigree and it had paid off. He was out of a daughter of Cat Thief named Sambuca Classica who had already produced two stakes winners before foaling Classic Empire. He was sired by Pioneerof the Nile whose son American Pharoah swept the Triple Crown just a year before Classic Empire’s juvenile season. Like American Pharoah, Classic Empire is a combination of Storm Cat granddaughters bred to Pioneerof The Nile.

Classic Empire’s pedigree surely showed champion potential. He was also well-built, so it was no surprise that he sold for $475,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. His new owner, John C. Oxley, sent the colt to trainer Mark Casse who was impressed with both the horse’s athleticism and his incredible mind. Casse said of the colt, “He’s extremely, extremely smart. He sees things other horses don’t see. We were saying this early on”.

On May 4, 2016, Classic Empire won his debut at Churchill Downs by 1 ½ lengths on a sloppy track. In his next start, he stepped up to Gr.3 competition in the Bashford Manor Stakes. Like in his debut, Classic Empire had a poor start. He slowly moved up the field on the backstretch and was positioned on the rail for his stretch run. In a sudden burst of speed, he narrowly won the race by ¾ of a length.

His connections decided to step it up a notch in the horse’s next start, entering him into the Gr.1 Hopeful Stakes. Because his regular jockey Julien Leparoux was sidelined with a broken wrist, Irad Ortiz Jr. would be in the irons. At the start, Classic Empire moved sharply to the right, throwing Ortiz. He was vanned off the track with mild lameness reported, but came back from the race fine aside from having hit himself with a hoof.

One month later, he tried again in the Gr.1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity. This time he would be wearing blinkers. He broke well and was up near the front of the pack. He dominated the race, winning by three lengths.

With such a grand performance under his belt, Classic Empire became the second favorite in the Gr.1 Breeders' Cup World Championships Juvenile. In the race, Classic Empire broke very well and sat just off of Syndergaard, pressing the pace. At the final turn, Classic Empire began to really put the pressure on Syndergaard and was on top when they got to the stretch. He charged down the stretch, holding off a strong run by the favored Not This Time to win by a neck.

That final race of his two-year old season easily netted Classic Empire Champion Two-Year Old honors and he was an early co-favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

Photo by CC Photography

Classic Empire started his three-year old season in February of 2017 with a start in the Gr.2 Holy Bull Stakes. He seemed notably off and was difficult to load into the starting gate. He broke a step inward and moved up into third. In the stretch, he failed to have a strong kick and finished third.

After the race, an abscess was found on his right, front hoof. On March 3rd, Classic Empire refused to breeze. An equine massage therapist was brought out to examine and treat the horse’s sore back. For the next few days, Classic Empire was tack-walked before being put back onto the track. On March 19th, he refused to breeze again and the decision was made to ship him to Florida to see if the warmer weather would help the horse.

The transition was successful and by April Classic Empire had fully recovered. The horse was ready to make a comeback in the Gr.1 Arkansas Derby. He raced midpack and charged down the middle of the track to win the race by ¾ lengths.

Classic Empire was one of the favorites for the 2017 Kentucky Derby However, he was one of the many horses who had a rough start. Irish War Cry had broke inwardly, slamming into McCracken, causing McCracken to do the same to Classic Empire. In the backstretch, Classic Empire was racing in 13th. Around the far turn he was able to begin closing but was again bumped by McCracken. Despite all the trouble, he was able to finish fourth.

The horse came out of the race with his right eye so swollen that he could barely open it the following morning. He also had multiple abrasions. Fortunately, none were deep enough to require stitches. Classic Empire had truly been beat up in the Kentucky Derby.

After recovering, Classic Empire was entered into the Preakness Stakes in an attempt to get the horse some redemption. Classic Empire broke well and was pressing Always Dreaming on top early on. The horses remained together until Classic Empire put Always Dreaming away on the far turn. He began to move away from the field, looking as if he would win it. But, just moments before the wire, a fast closing Cloud Computing put his head in front to win in an upset.

Classic Empire was pointed towards the Belmont Stakes and it was announced that he would go to Ashford Stud (Coolmore America) when he retired. On June 7th, an announcement was made that Classic Empire would be scratched from the Belmont due to his abscess returning.

He had several possible starts for the summer season, but each time another issue would come to the fore. The horse kept refusing to breeze because his back soreness continued to reappear. He was sent to Winding Oaks Farm so he could be monitored daily by his veterinarian. When Classic Empire failed to recover in time for a start in the Breeders Cup Classic, the decision was made to retire him.

Classic Empire shipped to Ashford Stud with a record of 9:5-1-1 and earnings of over $2.5 million. He began breeding in 2018 with a fee of $35,000. Mares in foal to him sold for up to $210,000. He now stands for $25,000 and his first foals are starting to appear at farms all across the United States.

Classic Empire truly made a name for himself as a two-year old. Had his three-year old season not been plagued with injuries, there is no telling what he could have been capable of. Only time will tell if Classic Empire will be as good of a sire as he was a racehorse, but it is difficult not to fantasize of his offspring with roses draped across their backs at Churchill Downs on that first Saturday in May.



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