Casse has repeatedly called Classic Empire the best 2-year-old he had ever trained. The son of Pioneerof the Nile had won three of his first four starts – with his only loss coming in the Hopeful Stakes, when he unseated his jockey – and the bay colt came into the Juvenile off of a sharp win in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland on Oct. 8.
Classic Empire stands to be honored as the divisional champion after winning the Juvenile under a perfectly timed ride by Julien Leparoux. After sitting just off the opening fractions set by Syndergaard through the backstretch, Classic Empire moved up through the far turn, took command entering the lane, and had enough left to outlast a charging Not This Time by a neck.
Not This Time, winner of the Iroquois Stakes, ran very well in defeat, easily besting third-place Practical Joke.
"All week long [trainer] Dale [Romans with Not This Time] said we were going to run 1-2," Casse grinned. "I said 'okay'. I'm just glad I was the '1'.
"When he won the Bashford Manor at Churchill in June...I thought it was the most impressive 2-year-old winner that I'd ever trained," Casse continued. "I'm normally not a cocky guy...but I said to a few people [in Saratoga], 'We're going to win the Hopeful today, it's just a matter of how far.'
"Then of course he put me back into reality [when Classic Empire unseated his rider]. But what amazes me is this horse's ability to have such a high cruising speed. And maybe that's another thing that makes this so special. He's an extremely, extremely smart horse, and he tends to see things that maybe others don't, and you never know what he's going to kind of do."
Classic Empire covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.60 as the 4.50-to-1 second betting choice. He has won four of five career starts, and earned $1,485,920. John Oxley bought Kentucky-bred Classic Empire for $475,000 at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale. Oxley won the Kentucky Derby with the recently-departed Monarchos in 2001, and Classic Empire's Juvenile win has his connections dreaming big.
"Obviously our goal is the first Saturday in May," Casse said.