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Preakness: Classic Empire looks to rebound from tough Kentucky Derby

Classic Empire, ridden by jockey Julien Leparoux, during

Classic Empire, ridden by jockey Julien Leparoux, during post parade prior to the start of the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 6, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. Credit: Getty Images / Rob Carr

When 20 horses blast out of the gate, chaos is in control, and the opening strides of this year’s Kentucky Derby were especially crazy. When Irish War Cry bore in from post 17, it set off a chain reaction that turned four horses inside him into wobbling dominos.

Irish War Cry veered left into McCraken (post 15), who came over sharply into Classic Empire (14), who banged into J Boys Echo (13). Irish War Cry also bothered Tapwrit (16), who had to be steadied. So while winner Always Dreaming was gliding into position for a dream stalking trip, Classic Empire was reeling from the collision. Some footnotes from Equibase’s chart:

“Classic Empire bobbled soon after the break, then was hammered off stride between rivals when forced down, regrouped to rate off the inside, picked up steam leaving the far turn, swung five wide for the drive, had his run briefly interrupted when bumped and carried out in midstretch, regrouped and churned on.”

So instead of a short comment, the chart caller had to write a short story about Classic Empire. Adding to the misery, somewhere during his horror trip last year’s 2-year-old champion was hit in the eye, maybe by a pebble or by muck from the wet track. He still managed to finish fourth under Julien Leparoux, 8¾ lengths behind, leaving trainer Mark Casse feeling cheated and wondering what might have been.

“He got wiped out at the start,” Casse said. “McCraken nearly knocked us down. I think it cost us a few placings at least. Julien told me, ‘I don’t know how we stayed up. I didn’t get bumped, I got clobbered.’

“So one can only speculate what the outcome of the race would have been had he been given a clear trip.”

Casse said Classic Empire’s right eye was three-quarters closed the next morning, but that by Thursday it was fine. He plans to challenge Always Dreaming in Saturday’s Preakness, and thinks he can win. Casse noted that Trakus, which measures the ground covered by each horse, said Classic Empire ran 75 feet farther than Always Dreaming did. It’s most unlikely that will happen at Pimlico.

“He broke very well,” Leparoux said, “but the outside horses came over very quick and bumped him very hard. It was tough to overcome that, but he ran a great race. Hopefully, we’ll get a cleaner trip and try to win it this time.”

Want another legitimate excuse? Casse hoped to give Classic Empire another Derby prep but ran out of time. A foot abscess and back trouble sidelined him from early February until April 15, when his Arkansas Derby victory restored his reputation. With everything that went wrong before and during the Derby, he should be due for some good luck.

“He’s full of energy, and the plan is to run, because we think he’s the best horse and we want to prove it,” Casse said. “And we sure didn’t change our minds because of the results of the Derby.”

Always Dreaming’s high cruising speed helps keep him out of trouble, and he’s worked out three consecutive perfect trips under John Velazquez. If circumstances conspire against them and Classic Empire gets a clean run, the Preakness might have the stretch battle the Derby didn’t.

Terry Finley, one of Always Dreaming’s owners, won’t be surprised if their colt is in for a fight this time.

“Classic Empire had a tough trip and put in a really good run,” Finley told “The Derby winner always has a target on his back in the Preakness, and we’re no different. What you worry about are those horses who regroup and come back with their ‘A’ game.’’

Notes & quotes: Always Dreaming impressed exercise rider Nick Bush and trainer Todd Pletcher in a 1½-mile gallop Monday at Pimlico. “He’s fired up this morning,” Pletcher said. Bush said the colt is back to himself after being “probably a little drained a few days after the Derby. To me, it’s like the tank is filling back up.” … Ten horses are expected to be entered at Wednesday’s post-position draw: Always Dreaming, Derby also-rans Lookin At Lee (second), Classic Empire, Gunnevera (seventh) and Hence (11th), plus new shooters Conquest Mo Money, Multiplier, Cloud Computing, Senior Investment and Term of Art.

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