Arkansas Derby Win Caps Big Day for Cox

Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates

Contact: Jennifer Hoyt, or (501) 363-4305

Sunday, April 02, 2023

Angel of Empire & Jockey Flavien Prat winning he GI Arkansas Derby

Photo Credit: Coady Photography

Arkansas Derby Win Caps Big Day for Cox

It was quite the late birthday celebration for trainer Brad Cox, who, two days after turning 43, saddled three stakes winners Saturday at Oaklawn, including Angel of Empire in the $1.25 million Arkansas Derby (G1), a result that stamped the colt one of the Kentucky Derby favorites.

Cox, honored with an Eclipse Award as the country’s outstanding trainer in 2020 and 2021, also won the $600,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies with heavily favored Wet Paint and the $200,000 Hot Springs Stakes for 3-year-olds with Eyeing Clover.

“It was a great day,” Cox said during training hours Sunday morning at Oaklawn. “It was good. Big performance from that colt yesterday, Angel of Empire. We’ll load him on Tuesday and ship to Kentucky and see what we can come up with.”

Ridden for the first time by Flavien Prat, Angel of Empire ($11.40) powered to a 4 ¼-length victory over King Russell before an estimated crowd of 65,000. A son of champion and 2017 Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire, Angel of Empire covered 1 1/8 miles over a fast track in 1:49.68 to generate a preliminary Equibase Speed rating of 106, a career high.

Angel of Empire’s ascending Equibase Speed ratings mirror his development the last five months. He had won an entry-level allowance race at 1 mile Nov. 14 at Horseshoe Indianapolis, finished second in the $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at 1 mile Jan. 1 at Oaklawn and won the $400,000 Risen Star Stakes (G2) at 1 1/8 miles Feb. 18 at Fair Grounds before a dominating performance Saturday.

“I’ve said it several times,” Cox said. “He’s a horse we thought would get better with time and, obviously, age as well. And you know, he’s obviously gotten better throughout the winter and he looks amazing. I think distance is probably an equalizer. He’s not blessed with a tremendous amount of speed. He just kind of breaks. And he’s not void of speed, but he kind of finds his way and they get away from him a little bit. But he settles. He’s a very smart horse. Probably the biggest thing with him. Pretty big crowd here. There was a lot of noise in the paddock. Stands there and really presented himself well yesterday in the paddock and in the infield when we legged the riders up. He was on his toes, but he wasn’t hot at all. He was feeling good. You could tell he was ready to run. Loved how he was acting mentally.”

Seventh after a half-mile, Angel of Empire cruised toward the front with a four-wide bid on the second turn and seized command in the upper stretch. The margin, 2 ½ lengths in mid-stretch, ballooned in the run to the wire.

“Even in the gallop out, they weren’t close to him,” Cox said. "Flavien had never sat on him and he came back said, ‘Wow! This horse, the further, the better.’”

Angel of Empire collected 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points for his Arkansas Derby victory, which pushed his overall total to 154 (No. 2 on official rankings released Saturday night by Churchill Downs). The 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby, May 6 at Churchill Downs, is limited to 20 starters.

Angel of Empire has had five jockeys in his six-race career, including Florent Geroux in an allowance turf sprint last fall at Kentucky Downs, Joe Talamo in the Smarty Jones and Luis Saez in the Risen Star. Cox said he doesn’t have a commitment for the Kentucky Derby.

“They’ll sort themselves out over the next several weeks, between the Blue Grass, Wood and Santa Anita Derby,” Cox said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Angel of Empire, a $70,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale graduate, races for Iowa-based Albaugh Family Stables LLC (Jason Loutsch). Angel of Empire ($1,069,375) surpassed $1 million in career earnings with the Arkansas Derby victory, his fourth overall.

The Arkansas Derby marked Cox’s fifth victory in Oaklawn’s last 12 Kentucky Derby points races. He also won the Arkansas Derby last year with Cyberknife.

Cox also notched his second career victory in the 1 1/16-mile Fantasy with Wet Paint, a homebred daughter of Blame who races for her breeder, Godolphin LLC. Wet Paint, last of 10 early, rolled to a 2 ½ length victory over Taxed to become only the second horse to sweep what are now Oaklawn’s three Kentucky Oaks points races. Wet Paint, the 3-5 favorite under Prat, also won the $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes at 1 1/16 miles Jan. 28 and the $300,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles Feb. 25. Eight Belles won the Martha Washington (second division), Honeybee and Fantasy in 2008.

Wet Paint is perfect in career four starts around two turns. But the first three victories, including the Martha Washington and Honeybee, were over off tracks. Wet Paint ($3.20) raced over a fast track Saturday.

“Listen, we don’t know until we try,” Cox said. “We didn’t know until we ran yesterday. But her works here have been awfully good on dry tracks, so I felt pretty confident we’d get a big run from her as long as we got pace to run at. We got it.”

Wet Paint’s winning time was 1:44.08. She will carry a 4-1-0 mark from six lifetime starts into the $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks (G1) May 5 at Churchill Downs. The 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks is the country’s biggest race for 3-year-old fillies. Wet Paint has earned $689,000 and tops the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard with 170 points, including 100 for her Fantasy victory.

“She’s definitely one of the top fillies in the country,” Cox said.

Cox said next-race plans are pending for Ten Strike Racing’s Eyeing Clover, who, in his two-turn debut, rebounded from a fourth-place finish in the $300,000 Gotham Stakes (G3) for 3-year-olds at 1 mile March 4 at Aqueduct. Eyeing Clover, under Geroux, was a one-length winner over favored Gun Pilot in the 1-mile Hot Springs. Eyeing Clover ($5.60) was racing without blinkers for the first time in his four-race career.

“I don’t really know what to make of the race,” Cox said. “It was a short field. He had a little bit of a rough run in the first turn and boxed in up the backside, but Florent did a good job of getting him out and getting him to respond. He stayed on. I don’t really know if it’s something that we’re wanting to build off of and go further around two turns or cut him back. We’ll talk to the Ten Strike Group and come up with a plan shortly.”

Eyeing Clover’s winning time over a fast track was 1:39.45. Eyeing Clover’s third career victory increased his earnings to $230,650. A $55,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase, Eyeing Clover won his Dec. 31 career debut at Oaklawn.

Saturday’s triple pushed Cox’s career Oaklawn victory total to 285, including 20 this season. Cox entered Sunday with 36 career stakes victories at Oaklawn, with a single-season career high eight coming at the 2022-2023 meeting.