Classic Empire clinches Kentucky Derby spot with Oaklawn win

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (AP) Two-year-old champion Classic Empire recovered from a poor performance his last time out and locked up a Kentucky Derby bid Saturday with a come-from-well-behind win in the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.

”He just has so much ability,” trainer Mark Casse said. ”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.”

Malagacy lost for the first time, finishing fifth, but the points he picked up last month in the Rebel Stakes are enough to send him to Churchill Downs, too. Conquest Mo Money, which broke fast but couldn’t hold off Classic Empire in the final 16th-mile, could be Kentucky-bound if his owners put up a $200,000 supplemental fee.

Earlier Saturday, Senior Investment chased down West Coast in the final furlong to win the $200,000 Grade 3 Lexington by a head Saturday at Keeneland, but the 10 points he earned leaves him outside looking in for the May 6 Kentucky Derby. His win in the 1 1/16-mile race was his third in five starts, and his first graded stakes victory.

Classic Empire had finished third at February’s Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, but well off the pace. He caught Conquest Mo Money just shy of the wire in the 1 1/8-mile Grade 1 race and won by a half-length. Lookin at Lee and Sonneteer finished third and fourth, but did not win enough qualifying points to automatically be considered for the Kentucky Derby.

Steve Asmussen, the trainer of Lookin at Lee, said he would continue training the horse with the hope that it can be a Kentucky Derby entrant.

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

And even though his horse was chased down in the final yards, Miguel Hernandez said he was happy with Conquest Mo Money’s performance.

”Oh, my God. It’s so exciting,” he said. ”I want to say, I said, `I got it. I got it. I got it.’

”Right by the three-quarter pole, I thought he was going to quit. He came back. I’m happy with the way he ran,” Hernandez said.

At the Lexington, running on two weeks’ rest didn’t bother Senior Investment, whose strong close so impressed trainer Ken McPeek that the distance almost seemed too short and the Kentucky Derby points reward too small for his horse, which had finished sixth in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds.

Lagging back entering the final turn, Senior Investment surged late and nipped West Coast by a head.

”He timed it right,” jockey Channing Hill said.

McPeek, meanwhile, wondered what Senior Investment could have done in a longer race if given the chance.

”I really felt like a mile and an eighth would have been great for him,” McPeek said. ”I think Churchill (Downs) ought to add more (Kentucky Derby qualifying) points to this race immediately, but that’s the way the ball bounced.”

At Oaklawn, Classic Empire paid $5.80, $4.40 and 3.80.

At Keeneland, Senior Investment paid $24.20, $8.20 and $4.20.

Graves reported from Lexington, Kentucky.

On Twitter, follow Gary B. Graves at www.twitter.com/GaryBGraves and Kelly P. Kissel at www.twitter.com/kisselAP

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