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Classic Empire overcame obstacles on road to Kentucky Derby

Classic Empire, right, with Julien Leparoux aboard, charges

Classic Empire, right, with Julien Leparoux aboard, charges to the finish line to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile horse race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., on Nov. 5, 2016 . Photo Credit: AP / Jae C. Hong

It’s been 10 years since Street Sense became the first horse to hit the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-Kentucky Derby double, and Nyquist repeated the feat last year. So nobody talks about the Juvenile jinx anymore, but this spring, trainer Mark Casse might have been wondering if it had made a comeback.

Little went right for his 2-year-old champion and Juvenile winner, Classic Empire, as he started on the Derby trail. He sweated up badly before his 3-year-old debut Feb. 4 in the Holy Bull Stakes at sultry Gulfstream Park and faded to a distant third as the 1-2 favorite. That was disturbing enough, and it got a lot worse.

“It’s tough,” Casse said. “When you have the champion 2-year-old and nothing is going right, it makes you scratch your head.’’

Twice the temperamental colt refused to work out, and then came a foot abscess and a back problem. He didn’t have a timed work for 42 consecutive days and didn’t race again until mid-April. Casse was having serious doubts about whether he could get him to Churchill Downs.

“There’s a lot of things that can go wrong,” Casse said, “and you need everything to go right. But I’ve never once counted him out. I know a lot of people have. So yes, it’s been difficult, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We’re stronger, and I feel he’s the most talented horse out there right now.”

So do many handicappers, who consider Classic Empire the horse to beat in Saturday’s 143rd Kentucky Derby. He restored his reputation by overcoming a 70-day layoff with a come-from-behind victory April 15 in the Arkansas Derby. For the first time since Jan. 30 he regained the top spot in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association’s media poll, and don’t be surprised if he’s the morning-line favorite.

The comeback win was a great relief for Classic Empire’s regular rider, Julian Leparoux. “It was a tough winter, I am not going to lie,’’ Leparoux said. “Come January, we expected so much from him, and after the Holy Bull, he just went downhill from there. But Mark and his team did an awesome job.

“Hopefully, now there’s no more hiccups and we go to the Derby on a clear path. I think we can win it.”

The Derby’s 1 1⁄4 miles should be no problem for the son of Pioneerof the Nile, sire of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Classic Empire’s maternal grandfather, Cat Thief, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, so unlike many of his opponents, there are no stamina questions. Emotional stability is a concern, however. Will Classic Empire lose it amid the wall of noise from 165,000 fans?

“A lot has been said about how he’s going to handle the crowd,” Casse said. “He won at Keeneland, there were a lot of people there. He won the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, a lot of people there. I really don’t see it being an issue.”

If is the biggest word in the English language and “What if?” the scariest question. Trying to stay upbeat is the best defense, and Casse believes the worst is behind him.

“With the average horse, you couldn’t do what we have done,” he said. “You need so many things to go right, and the good news is this horse is so talented, he can overcome a lot.

“I think the toughest deal is over, getting to this point. This is like a baseball game. All that matters is if you’re ahead in the last inning. I feel like we have the bases loaded.”

Notes & quotes: The following horses are expected to be entered Wednesday: Always Dreaming, Battle of Midway, Classic Empire, Fast and Accurate, Girvin, Gormley, Gunnevera, Hence, Irap, Irish War Cry, J Boys Echo, Lookin At Lee, McCraken, Patch, Practical Joke, Sonneteer, State of Honor, Tapwrit, Thunder Snow, Untrapped.

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