BALTIMORE – Through injuries, unexpected setbacks and awful luck, trainer Mark Casse hopes his continuing belief in Classic Empire will be rewarded in the 142nd Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course.
“He’s had a lot of things thrown at him this year,” Casse said, “and he continues to fight back. And that just shows you how great he is.”
Classic Empire, a troubled fourth in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands, is giving Casse every sign that he wants another shot at Always Dreaming, the 2 ¾-length Derby victor.
He jogged approximately seven furlongs before galloping one mile at Pimlico on Friday morning and was “on the bit,” according to Casse.
The trainer went on, “You know, what I like about him is he’s eager to go to the track. This winter, when we were having some issues, he kind of didn’t want to go to the track. Now, he’s eager to go there and train.”
Even the weather appears to be going their way. The forecast calls for a return to cooler temperatures after a brief heat wave swept through the region.
“That will really get him feeling well,” Casse said. “We’re anxious for a little cooler weather.”
If luck tends to even out, Casse is due for a whole lot of good fortune. Adversity came to Classic Empire with the swiftness of a sucker punch after a dazzling 2-year-old campaign in which he rattled off four victories in five starts, capped by a triumph in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile that secured year-end Eclipse Award honors.
The first sign of trouble came before the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park. The son of Pioneerof the Nile acted up before the race, as if to tell anyone watching that something was amiss. Then he ran that way, finishing third to Irish War Cry.
It was hardly surprising that a foot abscess was discovered after the Holy Bull. Casse has always lauded the colt for his intelligence. That attribute was on display again when Classic Empire balked before a scheduled workout on March 3. On this occasion, he was trying to tell his connections that his back was bothering him.
Casse decided it was time for some rest and relaxation, leading the Kentucky-bred to be sent to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala. That ultimately forced him to miss a scheduled Kentucky Derby prep in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, but the youngster showed he was regaining his form when he rallied four wide for patient jockey Julien Leparoux to take the Arkansas Derby by a half-length.
Casse entered the Kentucky Derby with high hopes. The first piece of bad luck for owner John Oxley came at the draw, when he received post 14. The misfortune continued when Classic Empire was clobbered soon after he broke from the starting gate.
It did not end there.
It is believed that a clod of mud struck the horse in the right eye. Whatever the cause, Classic Empire looked like a battered heavyweight the morning after the Derby. His wounded eye was virtually closed due to swelling.
Casse welcomed the Preakness draw. Classic Empire will start just outside of Always Dreaming in post five.
“A lot will depend on how Always Dreaming breaks and how Johnny [Velazquez] wants to maneuver him around,” Casse said. “But I would think there’s going to be a fairly fast pace, and I would love to be sitting right behind him.”
Almost as soon as the Kentucky Derby ended, Casse knew he was advancing to the Preakness.
“We’re running him,” he said, “because we think he’s the best horse.”