For all his physical gifts and the obvious depth of his racing heart, Classic Empire has rarely walked an easy path.
So it seemed almost fitting when his Kentucky Derby chances ended in a maelstrom of horses, crashing in from the outside after the break. Just another chapter in the wild tale of a horse who keeps fighting back to the front of his class despite poor injury luck and his own vagaries of mood.
Father-son trainers Mark and Norman Casse see little use in lamenting the rough trip at Churchill Downs, which ended with a fourth-place finish. Rather they’re confident that Classic Empire, who reached Pimlico Race Course at 4:30 a.m. Monday, is brewing up a powerful challenge to Derby champion Always Dreaming in the 142nd Preakness.
Norman Casse sounded as if he were promoting a heavyweight fight when he described the showdown coming Saturday.
“I think everybody’s excited about it,” Casse said. “Here’s Always Dreaming, who’s moved up to the top of the class. We got Classic Empire, who’s unanimous 2-year-old champion and has had his issues, but now he’s back on the top of his game. On a racetrack that suits both of them and hopefully, it’ll be a fair race for both of them, we’ll get to see them settle it.”
Because Classic Empire missed about five weeks of preparation for the Derby — some because of injuries and some because he simply refused to work out in the morning — the Casses believe he’s just now rounding into peak form.
“All along, we kind of figured that with the hiccups we had all winter, the stops and starts he had in his training, the Preakness would be the race that we had a legit chance to win,” Norman Casse said. “We thought we could win the Derby, but things had to go absolutely perfect. And it obviously didn’t. Here, we’re sitting on a much bigger race and feeling very confident that he’s going to give Always Dreaming a big run.”
The Derby champion’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, was more restrained in discussing the matchup, as one might expect from the favorite.
“He’s the defending 2-year-old champion and very accomplished, very talented,” Pletcher said of Classic Empire. “So you’d have to give him a lot of respect. ... You respect everyone’s chances and their ability, but we’re pretty happy with the horse we have.”
That said, Always Dreaming vs. Classic Empire is the Preakness matchup that has hardcore racing fans most excited.
“I’d say he [Classic Empire] has a reasonably good chance to turn the tables,” NBC analyst Randy Moss said. “Always Dreaming would still deserve favoritism, but it could be a very good race.”
Former trainer Larry Kelly, who’s working with seventh-place Derby finisher and Preakness contender Gunnevera, said Classic Empire will need to challenge Always Dreaming early.
“If he’s got a chance to beat him, he’s going to have to tackle him at some point. You can’t let him steal away, or you’re not going to beat him,” Kelly said. “Classic Empire is a very proven horse. He’s a champion. So it’s not like he’s fighting with a short stick. But if he’s going to sit there and wait for [Always Dreaming] to stop, it’s not going to happen.”
Just moments after he broke from the gate in the Derby, Classic Empire banged bodies with McCraken, who’d been pushed his way by an aggressive move to the inside from Irish War Cry. The collision was violent enough that jockey Julien Leparoux felt fortunate not to be thrown from his mount.
Classic Empire, the morning-line favorite, was essentially out of the biggest race of his life before he ever got a real chance to run. And yet he did not quit. Though he never challenged Always Dreaming’s lead, he ran down enough horses — including McCraken and Irish War Cry — to finish fourth.
The next morning, Classic Empire looked like he’d been in a fight, his right eye swollen three-quarters shut.
“He looked like Muhammad Ali after a rough night,” Mark Casse said.
Casse nonetheless itched for another shot at Always Dreaming. He’d believed his horse was the best all along, even when Classic Empire was beset by foot and back woes or refusing to train. And the Derby did not dissuade Casse from that view.
In fact, as Norman Casse noted Monday, Classic Empire’s Derby effort “earned him a lot more respect in the racing community.”
The colt has been known as eccentric ever since he made a sharp right out of the gate in the Hopeful Stakes last September. Questions about him intensified when he came up empty in the Feb. 4 Holy Bull Stakes, a performance the Casses attributed to a bad shipping experience that morning and on an abscess that emerged in Classic Empire’s foot.
A long period of training difficulty followed, but Classic Empire has been a solid pro since he began earnest preparations for the Derby. Norman Casse said he’s not worried about how the colt will behave this week.
“Everybody likes to think he’s some crazy horse,” he said. “He just has a tendency sometimes to want to refuse to train, but that hasn’t happened in about two months, knock on wood. Otherwise, he’s a true professional. He never turns a hair in the paddock. He could have cared less about the Derby crowd and everything. So we don’t expect any issues here.”
Classic Empire took an easy walk around his barn after arriving from Kentucky by van Monday morning. He’ll make his first trip to the track at Pimlico today.
As he peered out from his stall, bobbing his head at every sight and sound, it was apparent why his trainers think he might be almost too clever for his own good.
“I’ve been around the horse a long time. He does a lot of bonehead things for no reason whatsoever,” Casse said. “We can speculate all day long about why he does those things. My personal opinion is he’s smart. He’s probably the most intelligent horse I’ve ever been around. And every once in a while, he gets bored and he likes to mess with us. That’s it.”
For all the anxiety Classic Empire gives them in the morning, the Casses have learned to trust him on race day, no matter the setting.
“He always runs his race,” Norman Casse said. “He’s game. He’s gutsy. He has a big, big heart. Those are the horses you’re really eager to lead over. You’re just excited because you know you don’t have anything to worry about.”