In this year’s Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire is the one to beat.
“He’s ready,” trainer Mark Casse declared the other day on the backside at Churchill Downs.
If the horse wants to run.
That’s sort of a big if, right? It’s the Run for the Roses, after all. It’s horse racing. The winner of the race is the one who runs to the finish line the fastest.
As a 2-year-old, Classic Empire was that horse. He won the Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs. He won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. He won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita. He was the 2-year-old horse of the year.
Then, for reasons known only to him, Classic Empire stopped running. First, he stopped running fast. Then he stopped running at all.
In February, he finished third in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Then, when Classic Empire returned to the track at the Palm Meadows Training Center, he refused to work. He galloped, but when it was time to get serious, Classic Empire refused to break. Thanks, but no thanks.
That happened twice. A foot abscess was a problem. So was possible back pain. Still, Casse knew something wasn’t right. And he knew he needed to get his horse right. And fast.
“This horse wasn’t himself,” said the Casse, 56, an Indianapolis native who bases his operation at Woodbine in Toronto but calls Churchill Downs home. “He wasn’t happy. He was not behaving the way we would like him to behave.”
So Casse went back to square one. With the blessing of owner John Oxley, who owned 2001 Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, the trainer sent Classic Empire back to the farm. In this case, that was Winding Oaks Farm near Ocala, Fla. There, Casse hoped, his champion would relax and return to his old self.
“It was something that we talked about doing anyway all along,” Casse said. “At that point in time, I thought it was the only thing we could do.”
It worked. Gradually, Classic Empire came around. On March 22, he covered 5 furlongs in 1:01 2/5 at Winding Oaks. A week later, he quickened the pace and breezed 5 furlongs in :59 3/5 .
“I’ve been doing this a long, long time, and we have these sort of hiccups all the time, just never with a champion,” said Casse, who also will have State of Honor in Saturday’s race. “And never with a horse that is the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.”
Casse said he never threw in the towel. He said he privately told friends, “Take all the action you can get” when Classic Empire’s odds were rising. “I told them we may be down, but we’re far from out.”
The final test came April 15 in the Arkansas Derby. Breaking from the gate sixth in a 12-horse field, the son of Pioneerof the Nile (American Pharoah’s sire) remained patient, moved to third at the top of the stretch under jockey Julien Leparoux, then hit the gas to pass runner-up Conquest Mo Money by a half-length at the finish.
It was an impressive performance, but did it take too much out of a horse who had raced just once previously all year? Casse shakes his head. He cites last Friday’s work at Churchill Downs. In his final tuneup before the Derby, Classic Empire went 5 furlongs in :59.60.
“It gave me chills,” Casse said afterward.
“I think we’re facing a different version now,” trainer Graham Motion, whose Irish War Cry beat Classic Empire in the Holy Bull, said Tuesday.
And yes, Irish War Cry won the Wood Memorial impressively. Todd Pletcher’s Always Dreaming blew away the Florida Derby field. Come post-time Saturday, however, Classic Empire is expected to be the favorite.
“I’ve always said good horses win when everything goes their way; great horses win when nothing goes their way,” Casse said. “And I think he’s a great horse. But I guess we’ll determine that (Saturday).”
Mark Casse’s previous Kentucky Derby horses
William S. Farish Jr.
John C. Oxley
John C. Oxley