If trainer Mark Casse had known on New Year’s Day that Classic Empire would run well in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and be the 2-1 early favorite for the Belmont Stakes, he would have been thrilled. If he’d known how his colt would get to this point, he would have cringed.
He also would have found it hard to believe how much misfortune they would encounter. “It’s taught me to be patient,” Casse said Thursday. “I think I already was patient, but this has pushed it a little bit.’’
Actually, a lot. The racing gods have conspired against Classic Empire, a four-legged counterpart to the Bible’s long-suffering Job. Murphy’s Law began persecuting him during the winter and hasn’t let up. A foot abscess and back trouble sidelined him from early February until April 15, when he won the Arkansas Derby.
“The situation was really trying in the early spring,” Casse said. “When you have the champion 2-year-old and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and he’s not doing what you want him to do, it makes you scratch your head. There’s a lot of things that can go wrong, and you need everything to go right.”
Defying the law of averages, that hasn’t happened yet for Classic Empire and jockey Julien Leparoux. On Derby Day, a collision leaving the gate virtually eliminated them, and they did well to finish a distant fourth. At the Preakness, they battled Derby winner Always Dreaming from the start and made him crack before reaching the stretch. As Always Dreaming retreated to eighth, Classic Empire surged to lead by three lengths at the eighth pole and looked home free. Finally, redemption. Well, no. Cloud Computing, who enjoyed a perfect trip, rallied to beat him by a head.
Casse was asked about his immediate reaction to the Preakness bad beat. “Whether I cried or not?” he joked. “I was really proud of him. After that trip in the Kentucky Derby, I just wanted him to have a fair shot. He ran his rear end off, and we just got beat. I have no regrets.”
Although Classic Empire fully extended himself for every step of the 1 3⁄16 miles, Casse still felt cheated and empty. His colt’s status as the No. 1 3-year-old in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s latest media poll is little consolation. That’s the equivalent of a participation trophy. Only holding a real one after the 149th running of “The Test of the Champion” would reward Casse for all of the aggravation and frustration.
“Our horse had incredibly bad luck in the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “Hey, we should have won the Preakness. The best horse that day won, but I think circumstances were a part of it. Classic Empire ran hard in Arkansas and in Kentucky and again in Maryland.
“I think he looked better at Pimlico than he did before the Derby. I think he’s thriving. He’s actually getting bigger and stronger with the racing. That’s one of the reasons he’s going to show up for the Belmont. I think he deserves to win one of these races. I still think he’s the best 3-year-old, and we want to prove it.”
Notes & quotes: Lookin At Lee, Japan-based Epicharis, J Boys Echo, Meantime, Multiplier, Patch, Senior Investment, Tapwrit and Twisted Tom also are expected to be entered Wednesday for Saturday’s 1 1⁄2-mile Belmont, with Gormley and Irish War Cry possibilities. It’s the first Belmont since 2010 without the Derby and Preakness winners. In 2012, Triple Crown contender I’ll Have Another was scratched the day before the race because of a career-ending tendon injury.