It’s fitting that Black Diamond Equine Corp. is listed as co-breeder of Angel of Empire, since the colt started out as a diamond in the rough in Pennsylvania coal country. Failing to sell as a Keeneland weanling, yet hinting of potential, he has now matured into a leading Kentucky Derby(G1) contender.

The horseman’s ability to glimpse the future, in a market that rewards the fashionable here-and-now, is a recurring theme of Angel of Empire’s story – from Danish-born Christian Black, who bred the colt; to Sam Wright, who had the keen eye to invest in him as a youngster; and the Albaugh Family Stables team, shepherded by Jason Loutsch, that ultimately bought him as a yearling.
The tale begins with his dam (mother), Armony’s Angel, herself an inexpensive purchase in all three of her auction appearances. Bred by Gainesway Farm, also the breeder and co-owner of Tapit Trice, Armony’s Angel had a solid pedigree. But her well-bred sire, To Honor and Serve, wasn’t quite getting enough results at stud, and he would eventually be exported to Korea.
Thus Armony’s Angel wasn’t the type to attract much interest when she was initially offered as a yearling at Fasig-Tipton Kentucky October in 2017. Trainer Ken McPeek, who’s sourced such bargains as Hall of Famer Curlin and champion Swiss Skydiver at the sales, bought Armony’s Angel for just $20,000.
After she was unable to win a race, placing three times in eight starts, Armony’s Angel was sold again, for $30,000 at the 2019 Keeneland January Sale. The buyer was T.F. Van Meter, who saw an opportunity for a broodmare prospect. Armony’s Angel was bred to champion Classic Empire, himself a major player on the 2017 Triple Crown trail, and got in foal. She was slated to go through the sales ring again that fall, with Angel of Empire in utero.
Black took notice of Armony’s Angel at the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale, and bought her for $67,000. In the process, Black became the breeder of Angel of Empire, officially in the name of his entities Forgotten Land Investment Inc. and Black Diamond Equine Corp.
Armony’s Angel found her new home at Blackstone Farm in Pennsylvania. Black is managing partner of the Schuylkill County nursery that has ranked as the commonwealth’s leading breeder for the past four years in a row. Owned by Doug Black (no relation), Blackstone Farm bred past Derby competitor Tom’s Ready, 12th behind Nyquist in 2016. Tom’s Ready excelled at shorter distances, however, and he would go on to become a Grade 2-winning millionaire.
On April 9, 2020, Armony’s Angel foaled her bay colt, a “straightforward, healthy foal,” as Christian Black recalled.
“When you walked out in the field with his mom and him, he wouldn’t pay attention to you” – as if he were saying, “Hey I’m good, you don’t need to spend time on me.”
Physically, he was the type who would need more time to develop and grow into his frame.
“He was a leggy foal,” Black said. “His body was always like a little bit behind.”
Because the colt was unfurnished, it took some insightful projection to see the athlete in embryo.
“You had to kind of see what he could become,” Black said.
That’s exactly what Wright did, when scouting out weanlings for a partnership. The proprietor of Equine Investments International, Wright was born in Hong Kong to American parents, a background that informs his global operations. The young bloodstock manager was looking for weanlings with a view toward resale – “pinhooking” – and he visited Blackstone to take a look at the possibilities.
“He was a typical first foal,” Wright said, “very compact, kind of underdeveloped, like a kid that hasn’t hit the growth spurt yet.”
What set this colt apart from the norm, though, was the way he moved. Even as a baby, who was still “undersized” at that point, he was a natural.
“He always just walked,” Wright noted with emphasis. “I really liked how he lowered his head and moved very well.
“For that early stage, he covered a lot of ground, both in front and behind. That really caught my eye,” Wright said, explaining that a lot of foals haven’t figured out how to do that yet.
Moreover, the colt hadn’t even practiced for the impromptu exercise. Before weanlings are presented at public sales, they are taught to walk with a handler, and become more polished through the preparation.
“He hadn’t even gone through a sales prep,” Wright tellingly commented. “It came naturally to him. I went and looked at him twice, and each time he did it the same way.
“He really just marched. It was fantastic.”
Thus Wright bought into the colt as part of his group pinhooking venture. The weanling was consigned to Keeneland November, under the banner of St George Sales, but he hadn’t developed enough in the intervening months to suit the market. Accordingly, he was led out unsold when bidding stalled at $32,000.

His long process of maturation would continue at Nicky Drion’s farm near Nicholasville, Kentucky. The proprietor of the eponymous Nicky Drion Thoroughbreds, with a European bloodstock background, commented on the colt’s progress.

“Angel of Empire was always a straightforward horse, easy to work with,” Drion said, noting he was “a little backward” upon arrival and “didn’t stand out from the rest of the pack” at first.
“However in June, once we started sales prepping him for the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, he really started to bloom, and very quickly he began to catch your eye. He took the prepping well and learned the lunging/walking/showing straightaway. He was all business.
“By the time he went to the Keeneland September Yearling Sale, he turned inside out, and I was quietly confident he would sell well,” Drion concluded. “He peaked right at sales time.”
His price more than doubled since his last sales attempt, and exceeded his sire’s yearling average. Classic Empire wasn’t setting the world alight at that time, and the average price for his 2021 yearlings was $60,789.
Angel of Empire went for $70,000, through the consignment of Warrendale Sales – the same consignor that had sold Classic Empire six years earlier, as well as 2023 Derby rivals Raise Cain ($180,000) and Skinner ($40,000).
Yet judging by the overall market, and what the Albaugh family often pays for their recruits, Angel of Empire was a bargain. Their past Kentucky Derby runners cost multiples of that – Brody’s Cause ($350,000) J Boys Echo ($485,000), and Free Drop Billy ($200,000) – as did their other 2023 hopefuls, Jace’s Road ($510,000 teaming up with West Point Thoroughbreds) and Cyclone Mischief ($450,000).
Black was on hand, and at one showing, took hold of the colt while he was acting like a “big teenager who wanted to play around.” His breeder noted that he was always a “two-turn-looking horse,” still “a little immature” in September, and “not what the main market was looking for at that time.”
Warrendale’s Hunter Simms offered additional context around the sale.
“He needed some maturing, and we thought September would give him the extra time to develop,” Simms said. “When he shipped into us, he had been well prepped for the sales; however, he was still a large drink of water. I always loved the horse; he was well balanced, lots of leg, and really light on his feet.”
Simms explained his placement deep in the catalog as Hip No. 2612 – in Book 4, during the eighth session of the 11-day marathon.
“He was in Book 4 at Keeneland because at the time Classic Empire, another Warrendale graduate, was a little cold with his progeny on the track. So we thought the later placement would allow him to stand out. He was shown about 100 times over a day and a half period and had about a handful of vettings. He was a nice horse to be around at the sales and showed himself well while he was there.
“Dennis Albaugh ended up purchasing the horse, and we knew from then that they would give him every shot to be a racehorse and succeed on the track.”
Black likewise knew that the colt “ended up in the right hands,” with a stable that fits his profile.

In normal circumstances, the Albaugh family wouldn’t have even been buying that late into the sale. Their focus is on prime time, so to speak, at Fasig-Tipton’s Saratoga Sale and the first week of Keeneland September.
Albaugh’s son-in-law and racing manager, Jason Loutsch, had the idea to persevere after they didn’t reach their usual number of 10-15 yearling purchases.
“I told my father-in-law, I think we’re short (on numbers),” Loutsch revealed. “I’m gonna go back and look through the rest of the books.”
Scouring the latter sessions for two-turn pedigrees, with potential for the Derby trail, Loutsch and his pedigree helper unearthed Angel of Empire.
Sire Classic Empire might not have been flavor of the month to the wider bloodstock world, but he had a lot of meaning for the Albaugh team. In his championship-clinching Breeders’ Cup Juvenile(G1), Classic Empire held off the Albaughs’ favorite, Not This Time, by a neck.
“I love Classic Empire because he beat one of our best horses of all time,” Loutsch said. “I have tremendous respect for Classic Empire.
“He was really tough and could get the distance.”
The yearling’s provenance was another plus for Loutsch, from his birthplace at Blackstone to his consignor.
“I knew the farm in Pennsylvania does a good job. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Warrendale.”
Finally, the colt himself had to pass muster through all of the various inspections and assessments.
“He met all our criteria,” Loutsch said, and “jumped through all the hoops” to warrant taking a chance on a colt who typically wouldn’t have been on their radar.
After learning his early lessons with Barry Berkelhammer in Ocala, Florida, the juvenile was shipped to trainer Brad Cox’s string at Keeneland. He posted his first official work, a three-furlong breeze in :36.80, on May 30, 2022.
Meanwhile, Loutsch’s cousin, Reed Weston, was tasked with naming the youngsters. Weston has had the magic touch with horses named after his sons. Brody’s Cause honored his first son, Jace’s Road is called after his second son, and he originally attempted to name one “Baymax” for his third son, Max. That was rejected by the Jockey Club, and the colt was instead named Angel of Empire.
As with his early life, Angel of Empire’s racing career has been a case of blossoming over time. He started out apparently lower on the depth chart of Cox’s terrific team, but now ranks as his leading Derby contender following decisive wins in the Risen Star (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1).
To borrow the phrase from the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life, this angel has gotten his wings.
Black is “very optimistic” that Angel of Empire can become the third Pennsylvania-bred to win the Kentucky Derby, emulating Lil E. Tee (1992) and Smarty Jones (2004).
It would be ironic if a son of Classic Empire is the one to give the Albaugh family a long-sought Derby victory. Loutsch quips about what Classic Empire might say to them:
“I got you this time, buddy. I beat you, but now I’m gonna pay you back.”
Original Source Credited to
Cover Photo Credit to Brianna Clark
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