Dealing with curveballs has become the norm for Casse Racing where Classic Empire is concerned. In that respect, the champion colt’s lone timed workout in advance of the June 10 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets was business as usual.
John Oxley's dark bay colt ultimately got what his team wanted in preparation for the final leg of the Triple Crown, clocking an easy half-mile in :50 at Churchill Downs just before sunrise on June 2.
The workout was not without its quirks, however, as Classic Empire was scheduled to work in tandem with Grade 2 winner Airoforce only to have the latter fail to keep up on the turn, leaving his multiple Grade 1-winning stablemate by his lonesome in the stretch under exercise rider Martin Rivera.
“Ideally, when we design our sets we put horses together that will go head to head with the other horse to give them company and give them incentive to go,” said Norman Casse, son of and top assistant to his father, trainer Mark Casse. “Airoforce has always been a good workmate for [Classic Empire]. He was working with him down in Ocala, so it seemed like a perfect scenario. But they got such a big, big run to the pole that I think it just showed you how tired a horse like Airoforce can get just trying to keep up with a horse like Classic Empire, because he was done in the turn.
“But all things considered, I thought the work was perfect. We weren’t trying to go faster than :49, :50 anyway and he had plenty left galloping out. Nothing is orthodox about the way we have to train [Classic Empire].”
While the original plan for the workout went awry, the bottom line was that Classic Empire got in his maintenance drill and can now move forward to the task of trying to end his Triple Crown season on a high note following a fourth-place run in the May 6 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and a narrow runner-up finish in the May 20 Preakness Stakes.
Given the issues that have cropped up during Classic Empire’s sophomore campaign — from his well-documented foot abscess to the instances in which he refused to train — the fact he is coming into the Belmont Stakes as the probable favorite is a testament to the son of Pioneerof the Nile’s raw ability.
When Classic Empire captured the April 15 Arkansas Derby following his winter of setbacks, Mark Casse figured the colt was probably only about 80-percent ready.
And after getting slammed at the start of the Kentucky Derby but still running on gamely in the stretch, he arguably came into the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course as fit as he had been at any point this year.
“I think the Preakness was where he was at his peak, and I don’t think the race took much out of him at all,” Norman Casse said. “He’s shown a lot of enthusiasm in the mornings since we’ve gotten back, so I think he reached his peak fitness-wise at Pimlico. Now, we’ll see as he runs regularly. He’s only going to get better from here, because I think he still has a lot to do maturity-wise. The more he runs, the more professional he’ll get.”
Mark Casse said the day after the Preakness that he would consider taking the blinkers off Classic Empire for the Belmont, citing the fact he wasn’t sure the colt saw race winner Cloud Computing coming at him until they reached the finish line. The 2016 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner did not work with blinkers on Friday, but Norman Casse said no decision has been made on whether the equipment change will go into effect for 1 ½-mile classic.
“We still haven’t discussed that,” the younger Casse said. “We haven’t been working him in blinkers just because we don’t really like mixing things up too much with him in the mornings. But we haven’t discussed it since [the Preakness]. The opportunity is there. If they chose to [take the blinkers off], I’m comfortable either way.”
Classic Empire is set to ship to New York June 6 as part of a hefty Casse contingent that will be in action on the massive Belmont Stakes Racing Festival slate from June 8-10.