01/05/2017 6:06PM

2016 Eclipse Award finalist: Classic Empire

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Debbie Roma

In a span of 65 days, Classic Empire gave trainer Mark Casse one his most impressive wins and one of his most bizarre moments in racing. In the end, Classic Empire may give his trainer an Eclipse Award as well.

Classic Empire capped a terrific 2016 campaign with a victory in the Grade 1, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita on Nov. 5. Combined with victories in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and Grade 3 Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs, Classic Empire is the favorite to be crowned champion 2-year-old male at the Eclipse Awards ceremony at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 21.

Classic Empire is a son of Pioneerof the Nile, who sired 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Classic Empire is out of the Cat Thief mare Sambuca Classica, who also produced listed stakes winners Uptown Twirl and Anytime Magic. Classic Empire was purchased for $475,000 as a yearling at the 2015 Keeneland sale by John Oxley.

Three days before the 2016 Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire overcame a slow start to win a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race at Churchill Downs by 1 1/2 lengths.

:: Eclipse Awards: 2016 finalists with profiles

Two months later, in the Bashford Manor, Classic Empire again got off slowly while Recruiting Ready jettisoned off to the lead. Though Classic Empire had moved into third in midstretch, it still appeared that Recruiting Ready was home free. But Classic Empire kicked into another gear and ran down Recruiting Ready to win by three-quarters of a length.

“I’ve been training for 37 years, I thought it was the most impressive 2-year-old winner that I’d ever trained,” Casse said.

From there, Casse pointed Classic Empire to the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga, electing to skip a couple of graded stakes earlier in the meet. Sent off as the 8-5 favorite, Classic Empire broke to the outside and appeared to run toward an auxiliary starting gate on the track, unseating jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. in the process. Fortunately, Classic Empire just stood there and was uninjured.

The incident was bizarre, and Casse was simply happy the horse was not hurt. The following day, Casse quipped, “I still think if we can get him to run in a straight direction, he’s as good as pretty much any 2-year-old in North America.”

Casse, assisted by his son Norman, equipped Classic Empire with blinkers for the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. Classic Empire, who broke from post 11, sat an up-close third and galloped to a three-length victory.

In the Breeders’ Cup, Classic Empire broke on top and found himself sitting second, stalking the speedy Syndergaard through an opening half-mile in 46.60 seconds. After taking the lead around the far turn and opening a clear lead in the stretch, Classic Empire held off the favored Not This Time to win the Juvenile by a neck.

Twenty-four of the previous 32 BC Juvenile winners were crowned champions, and not all had a résumé similar to Classic Empire’s.

Classic Empire, ridden in all four of his victories by Julien Leparoux, is based at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida for the winter. He is tentatively scheduled to make his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 2, $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 4.

In December, Oxley pledged to donate 1 percent of the owner’s share of any Grade 1 victories recorded by Classic Empire through the Kentucky Derby to the Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation.