Since joining trainer Chad Brown’s stable in summer 2019, Rockemperor (IRE) had come up just a touch short in multiple prominent turf events on the NYRA circuit. On Oct. 9, the 5-year-old son of Holy Roman Emperor (IRE) finally earned his breakthrough victory, defeating a field that included four Grade 1 winners in the 44th running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park.
Owned by Madaket Stables, Michael Dubb, Wonder Stables, Michael E. Kisber and Michael J. Caruso, Rockemperor garnered graded stakes black type six times since being transferred to Brown, including a close second beaten a neck to stablemate Instilled Regard in last year’s Grade 1 Manhattan at Belmont. Previously trained in France by Simone Brogi, Rockemperor made his debut for Brown when a late-closing third in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational in July 2019.
“I’m so proud of the horse,” said Brown. “He’s been bridesmaid so many times and had a brutal defeat to Instilled Regard in the Manhattan last year. He has moved to the top of the list of one of the most deserving horses in our barn to win a Grade 1. He finally got it done.”
Fifth in last year’s Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, Rockemperor scored his first victory in North America when dropping down to allowance optional claiming company on June 26 going 10 furlongs over the Belmont inner turf ahead of a runner-up effort in the Grade 2 Bowling Green on July 31 at Saratoga. He arrived at the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic off a fourth in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Invitational on Aug. 28 at the Spa which was won by Gufo, the 9-5 favorite for Saturday’s race.
Piloted by Hall of Famer Javier Castellano, Rockemperor rated in second-to-last early on as defending champion turf male and two-time Joe Hirsch Turf Classic winner Channel Maker flaunted his usual frontrunning fashion into the first turn through an opening quarter-mile in 24.51 seconds over the firm inner turf with 2019 Joe Hirsch winner Arklow tracking a length off in second.
Through a half-mile in :49.41, Rockemperor found himself along the hedge as Gufo was tipped to his outside and in pursuit from the rear of the field.
Down the backstretch, Channel Maker was still in command through three-quarters in 1:14.75 and one mile in 1:38.62, while Rockemperor was under a strong hold by Castellano in search of racing room. Meanwhile, Gufo unleashed a furious bid to the far outside under an all-out drive from jockey Joel Rosario, giving Castellano room to angle Rockemperor several paths wide into the clear.
Gufo made the lead around the far turn, but Rockemperor found his best stride and leveled up to even terms, making a sweeping move to his outside past the three-sixteenths pole and drew away to a two-length victory in a final time of 2:25.61.
Stablemate Serve the King (GB) launched a late rally to finish second, 1 ½ lengths to the better of Gufo.
The victory marked a third Joe Hirsch Turf Classic triumph for Brown, who saddled Big Blue Kitten (2015) and Beach Patrol (2017) to victories ahead of a respective third and second in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf.
A start in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic was not initially in the cards for Rockemperor, who was supplemented to the race upon suggestion from owner Sol Kumin of Madaket Stable.
“I have to give credit to Sol Kumin, he was the first one to text me and say, ‘Shouldn’t we think about the Joe Hirsch?’,” Brown said. “Why not? He was doing really good and I’ve been really impressed with the horse in the morning. He’s always a good work horse.”
Brown admitted to being concerned at Rockemperor’s early position.
“I thought he would be closer. I thought he could be relatively close, but not pulling,” Brown said. “When it was a little bit crowded at the start, he found himself behind. I was quite worried because of his late one-paced nature that if he’s around those other horses like Gufo – who seem to kick a little harder than him – that he’d be in trouble. But this horse really responded today, and Javier really fit him perfectly.”
Brown made two equipment changes with Rockemperor, taking off the blinkers which he wore in his last four starts, and using a ring bit.
Castellano credited Brown for removing the blinkers, which he said made a big difference.
“I think he’s the type of horse that’s always keen going a long distance and is always pulling right away. I think the key is he told me he wanted to take off the blinkers,” Castellano said. “He’s a funny horse because if you leave him too far back, he doesn’t come. I think he was in the right place at the right time today. I think he was behind and it felt they went pretty quick, and he relaxed so well. When Gufo moved it gave me the opportunity to get to following. It was a key decision to get to win the race.”
Rockemperor returned $33.20 for a $2 win wager and banked $275,000 in victory, breaking the three-quarters of a million mark with $914,404 in lifetime earnings through a 20-4-5-6 record. The top two finishers rewarded Brown’s loyal backers with the exacta returning a cool $89.25 for $1.
The triumph came just under an hour before Brown notched another Grade 1 exacta on turf with Peter Brant-owned fillies Blowout (GB) nd Regal Glory running one-two in the First Lady at Keeneland.
Brown said he was also delighted with a game late-rallying performance from Serve the King, who arrived off a victory in the restricted John’s Call on August 25 going 1 5/8 miles at Saratoga.
“I’ve always been wanting to run that horse long,” Brown said. “His season came to an end last year – he had a minor injury, but I was going to run him in the (Grade 3) Red Smith. To re-start a horse like this, I had to build him up by giving him a mile and an eighth race (fourth in the Grade 3 Monmouth) and I finally got him out to a long race in the United Nations and he had a lot of trouble there. He should have been second to Tribhuvan. He had a lot of trouble in the stretch.”
Brown said both Rockemperor and Serve the King may have earned themselves a trip to Del Mar for the Grade 1, $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf on Nov. 6.
“Both horses – you’d have to look at it. We’ll see how the figures come back, but I’m not going to make any decisions right now,” Brown said. “Serve the King ran second and to be fair he had a lot of trouble in the stretch. He looked like he would’ve had a chance to win as well. They would have been very close at the wire if he’d had a better trip.”