05/16/2017 11:25AM

Belt-holder Classic Empire still in there punching

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Barbara D. Livingston
Despite a tough trip, Classic Empire was a fighting fourth in the Kentucky Derby.

BALTIMORE -- The champion may have been knocked down a couple of times this season, but he’s coming back for more.

Classic Empire, the 2-year-old champion of 2016, has had a star-crossed 3-year-old campaign. He managed to win the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby after a roller-coaster winter and spring. Following a difficult trip when fourth to Always Dreaming in the Kentucky Derby on May 6, Classic Empire will be one of nine expected challengers to face Always Dreaming in the Preakness.

As far as his connections are concerned Classic Empire should be in this race, troubled trip in the Kentucky Derby or not.

“We obviously know we were compromised in the Derby, but it’s not about that,” Norm Casse, assistant to his father, Mark, said Tuesday morning at Pimlico. “We like running our horses. You have a horse like Classic Empire, we believe we should be in these races. Hopefully, what will happen is Always Dreaming will have a good trip. We’ll have a good trip and we’ll settle it on the racetrack. I think that’s what we all deserve.”

Classic Empire was certainly a deserving 2-year-old champion of 2016 after winning four of five starts, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. His lone loss came in the Hopeful at Saratoga when he unseated his jockey, Irad Ortiz Jr., leaving the gate.

 

His 3-year-old season has not gone quite as smoothly. In January, Classic Empire finished third in the Grade 2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream and came out of the race with a foot abscess. On at least two occasions, Classic Empire refused to train in the morning at the Palm Meadows training center in south Florida. The Casses sent Classic Empire to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla., where he was taught his lessons as a young horse. After four workouts there, Classic Empire won the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, getting up late to beat Conquest Mo Money by a half-length.

Though things were going well for Classic Empire leading into the Kentucky Derby, Norm Casse felt that everything had to go perfectly in order to win. Things didn’t go perfectly in the Derby. Classic Empire got bumped at the start and was 13th early in the 20-horse field. He was extremely wide turning for home and then got bumped again at the eighth pole. Still, he persevered to be fourth, beaten 8 3/4 lengths.

“Personally, I felt that while we were happy where the horse was, we still knew we needed to have everything go perfect in the Derby and that whatever happened in the Derby, happened in the Derby, and for the Preakness we would really be sitting on a big race,” Casse said.

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Casse has liked what he’s seen in the morning from Classic Empire since the Derby, including Tuesday, when he jogged seven furlongs and galloped 1 1/8-miles on his first morning over Pimlico’s main track.

“The horse, since the Derby, has been much more on the bridle, much more aggressive galloping -- kind of back to the way he used to gallop as a 2-year-old,” Casse said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s putting himself in the race early just by the way he’s been training.”

This will be the third consecutive year that the 2-year-old champion will run in the Preakness. In the last 42 years, only 10 juvenile champions have competed in the Preakness. In that span, the juvenile champion has won the Preakness five times, three being Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew, Affirmed and American Pharoah. Lookin At Lucky, the 2008 2-year-old champion, won the 2009 Preakness after a troubled trip sixth in the Derby. Timber Country, the 1993 juvenile champion, won the 1994 Preakness after finishing third in the Kentucky Derby.

Norm Casse hopes to not only run Classic Empire in the Preakness, but he would like the colt to be well enough to run in the Belmont Stakes on June 10.

“We feel fortunate enough to have a horse that deserves to be in Triple Crown races. I would imagine we would take a really long look at it,” he said.