USA: Derby favourite Empire on the road to Kentucky

Gulfstream Park: plays host to Kentucky Derby favourite a week after Arrogate romped to victory in the Pegasus World Cup

PICTURE: Getty Images Derby favourite Empire begins road to Kentucky
By Nicholas Godfrey 5:02PM 4 FEB 2017

Preview: USA, Saturday 10.35pm GMT (live on ATR)

Gulfstream Park: Holy Bull Stakes (Grade 2) 1m½f, dirt, 3yo

AFTER the hulabaloo of last weekend's Pegasus World Cup, the focus is on Gulfstream Park again on Saturday when Kentucky Derby favourite Classic Empire (Mark Casse/Julien Leparoux) makes his seasonal debut in the Holy Bull.

The Grade 2 event marks the first step on the Florida Derby route to Churchill Downs, and Classic Empire brings solid credentials after his impressive success in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

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"He's such an athlete," said trainer Mark Casse, best known for his exploits with Royal Ascot winner Tepin.

"What makes him so good is the way he moves," added Casse. "One of the smartest horsemen I know in the world looked at him and said he looked like a panther. I think that's the best way to describe him.

"He's always ready to pounce. You just don't know what he's going to pounce on, but so far he's pounced on the competition."

Like Triple Crown hero American Pharoah, Classic Empire is a son of Pioneerof The Nile. He won all four races he finished at two – among them the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland as well as the Breeders' Cup – the only blip coming when he jinked at the starting gate at Saratoga and lost his rider. Since then, he has worn blinkers, as he does in the Holy Bull.

"You're always anxious off a layoff to get going," said Casse. "We're ready. All systems are go. It's the first step."

While Classic Empire is sure to start a strong favourite, he faces at least a couple of accomplished rivals, headed by Gunnevera (Antonio Sano/Javier Castellano), who took both the Saratoga Special and the Delta Downs Jackpot as a two-year-old.

The Coolmore team are part-owners of Fact Finding (Todd Pletcher/John Velazquez), who is unbeaten in three previous outings at lesser grade and scored by seven lengths on a sloppy track at this venue in December.

Ladbrokes: 4-7 Classic Empire, 5 Gunnevera, 11-2 Fact Finding, 10 Irish War Cry, 25 Cavil, Talk Logistics 33 Fire for Effect, 40 Shamsaan, 100 Perro Rojo

Also on Saturday

Gulfstream Park: Swale Stakes (Grade 2) 7f, dirt, 3yo (7pm GMT, live on ATR)

Florida-bred Three Rules (Jose Pinchin/Cornelio Velasquez), beaten for the first time in his life when sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, returns to the venue at which he was undefeated in five previous starts. Champagne Stakes runner-up Favorable Outcome (Chad Brown/Javier Castellano) is a serious opponent.

Gulfstream Park: Forward Gal Stakes (Grade 2) 7f, dirt, 3yo fillies (7.30pm GMT, live on ATR)

Trainer Mark Casse is also in the driving seat here with Pretty City Dancer (Julien Leparoux), unseen since dead-heating for first place in the Grade 1 Spinaway at Saratoga.

Aqueduct: Withers Stakes (Grade 3) 1m1/2f, dirt, 3yo (9.20pm GMT, live on ATR)

They're also setting off on the road to Kentucky in New York, where the spotlight will be on runaway Jerome Stakes victor El Areeb (Cathal Lynch/Trevor McCarthy), who has won his last three starts by a cumulative 25-plus lengths.

Santa Anita: San Antonio Stakes (Grade 2) 1m1f, dirt, 4yo+ (12 midnight GMT)

Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Hoppertunity (Bob Baffert/Flavien Prat) breaks from the rail as he bids to repeat last year's victory.

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