Sidelines with John Clay

Kentucky Derby: Classic Empire, Always Dreaming impressive Friday

Two of the Kentucky Derby’s top contenders, possibly the two favorites, went to the track Friday morning at Churchill Downs and their trainers couldn’t have been happier with what they saw.

“I thought he was exceptional,” said Todd Pletcher of Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming.

“It gave me chills,” said Mark Casse of Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire.

That pair was among several horses that put in final works in preparation for the 143rd running of the Derby on May 6.

Classic Empire was the early bird, going to the track at 6 a.m. and working 5 furlongs in :59.60, according to Churchill’s clockers.

“This was big, and I don’t think we could have asked for any better,” said Casse, who had spent more than a month trying to pull his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner back on track after a third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes in February. “The Classic Empire you’re always looking for was there today.”

He sure looked like the Classic Empire of old in overcoming obstacles to win the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn on April 15. The horse was then moved to Casse’s base at Churchill Downs, but the trainer had been in Florida for the Ocala Breeders Sale this past week and flew home Thursday night.

“I hadn’t seen him in about a week and I thought his flesh looked good,” he said Friday. “I don’t see how he couldn’t move forward (off the Arkansas Derby win).”

Meanwhile, Always Dreaming burst on the Derby scene with an impressive 5-length Florida Derby win run in the dazzling time of 1:47.47.

He shipped into Louisville on Tuesday and Pletcher had said he was interested to see how the horse handled the Churchill Downs track, which the trainer said is often “quirky.” Turned out, no problem.

“He seemed like he handled the track great,” said Pletcher, who is on the cusp of passing D. Wayne Lukas for most career Derby starters. “He did everything we were hoping he would do, everything we expected him to do.”

Tapwrit, who finished fifth in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 8 after winning the Tampa Bay Derby, turned in “a little more enthusiastic breeze than we’ll see sometime from Tapwrit,” Pletcher said.

Louisiana Derby runner-up Patch, the horse who lost his left eye last year, was, “as typical with him, was a little more of a lazy work horse,” said the trainer. Tapwrit and Patch worked together and went 5 furlongs in 1:00.20.

“They went a little bit slower than Always Dreaming,” Pletcher said of Tapwrit and Patch, “but I like the way they did it.”

Battalion Runner, who finished second in the Wood Memorial to Irish War Cry, did not handle the track as well as his stablemates. He worked 4 furlongs in :48 2/5.

“I didn’t think Battalion Runner breezed quite as well as the other ones,” Pletcher said. “It wasn’t the powerful work I was hoping for from him so we’ll see how he comes out of it and make a decision after that.”

Casse also worked Florida Derby runner-up State of Honor on Friday. He worked 4 furlongs in :48.80.

“He worked spectacular this morning,” Casse said. “He looks good. He tries really hard.”

Trainer Antonio Sano also worked Fountain of Youth winner Gunnevera, who went 5 furlongs in 1:03.60. Sano said afterward he was happy with the work. Gunnevera is coming off a third-place finish in the Florida Derby.

Practical Joke, second in the Blue Grass to Irap, worked 5 furlongs in 1:01.60 for trainer Chad Brown.

Meawhile, at Keeneland, Blue Grass Stakes winner Irap worked a mile in 1:44 1/5, reported the Daily Racing Form.

Kentucky Derby 143

When: Saturday, May 6

Where: Churchill Downs in Louisville

Probables: Always Dreaming, Battle of Midway, Classic Empire, Fast and Accurate, Gormley, Gunnevera, Hence, Irap, Irish War Cry, J Boys Echo, McCraken, Patch, Practical Joke, State of Honor, Tapwrit, Thunder Snow, Untrapped

Possibles: Girvin, Lookin at Lee, Malagacy, Royal Mo, Sonneteer