“We still think he’s the best horse and we want to prove it.”
So summed up Classic Empire’s trainer, Mark Casse, on Thursday’s NTRA teleconference previewing the May 20 Preakness (G1).
Last year’s champion two-year-old male never had a fair shot at Always Dreaming in the Kentucky Derby (G1) after getting sideswiped at the start. So significant was the collision that jockey Julien Leparoux was relieved Classic Empire didn’t go down.
“Julien said ‘I don’t know how he stayed up,’’’ Casse recounted, adding Leparoux’s comment, “I didn’t get bumped – I got clobbered.”
Instead of being fourth or fifth early in the Derby, Classic Empire found himself far out of position in 13th. At some point he got hit in the eye by a clod of mud, or possibly even by a rock or pebble, Casse said. The trainer also pointed to the colt’s wide trip, covering 75 feet more than Always Dreaming, according to Trakus.
Despite those misadventures, Classic Empire recovered well enough to rally for fourth. His 8 3/4-length margin of defeat is arguably offset by his degree of trouble plus ground loss.
The Preakness can test that hypothesis by serving up a rematch with Always Dreaming, hopefully with a level playing field for Classic Empire.
“We’re running because we think he’s the best horse,” Casse said of Classic Empire, reiterating that the Derby fiasco didn’t make them change their minds on that score.
The champion remains on course for Baltimore, now that his eye is healing nicely from the abrasion suffered in the Derby.
Hailing Classic Empire as a “tough son of a gun,” Casse said “he amazes me” how he can have so many things thrown at him, all year, yet “he keeps fighting back.”
The son of Pioneerof the Nile has the same attitude post-Derby.
“Put me back in, Coach, I’m ready,” was how Casse phrased Classic Empire’s mindset.
Also paying tribute to Classic Empire’s Derby effort was Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens, who’ll be aboard Royal Mo in the Preakness.
Stevens described the champion’s fourth-place finish as “spectacular in itself,” given the adverse circumstances.
Speaking on the same NTRA call, Stevens relayed something fellow Hall of Famer Mike Smith told him “it was by far the roughest Derby he’d ever ridden in.”
Royal Mo had a different kind of bad luck, failing to draw into the Derby as the first on the also-eligible list. But according to Thursday’s Preakness notes, trainer John Shirreffs hopes that will work to his advantage now.
“We were very disappointed,” Shirreffs said of being on the outside looking in on Derby Day. “We’d hoped we’d get in, but things don’t change much after the last work. At that point, I didn’t think anything was going to happen.
“It’s hard to predict (how Royal Mo might have fared). The Derby is about being in the right place at the right time, getting a break. A lot of things have to go well, so I don’t think I can predict that.
“I think it’s probably a little bit of an advantage to have a fresh horse (in the Preakness).
“He’s going to work either Saturday or Sunday depending upon the track conditions here (at Pimlico) with what the weather’s doing. If he works well over the track, we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”
Having flown into Baltimore with Always Dreaming on Tuesday, Royal Mo has kept a similar schedule. The Uncle Mo colt jogged Wednesday and galloped beneath jockey Taylor Leatherman Thursday.
“He galloped very well today,” Shirreffs said. “Taylor did a terrific job with him. I asked her to let him pick it up at the end and he picked it up nicely.
“I thought Taylor did a perfect job on the horse for someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to ride him very much. At this late stage and with a horse as far along as he is, she did a super job.”
In other Preakness news:
Classic Empire is expected to van from Churchill to Pimlico Sunday. With the main track being sealed in Louisville Thursday, he jogged for exercise rider Martin Rivera.
Three other Preakness candidates are also currently at Churchill – Derby runner-up Lookin at Lee and his stablemate Hence (11th) from the Steve Asmussen barn, and Antonio Sano’s Gunnevera (seventh).
The Asmussen pair had a gate schooling session along with their Thursday gallop. As usual, they’re set to breeze on Monday (“easy half-miles,” as the notes put it) and take a Tuesday flight. Both are likely to school in Pimlico’s paddock, assistant Scott Blasi said.
Gunnevera’s Churchill morning ritual has been different each day, by design. After a two-mile jog Tuesday, and Wednesday’s one-mile jog and gallop over the same distance, the Sano trainee jogged 1 1/2 miles with the pony and finished up with a leisurely half-mile gallop.
“My dad arrives here tonight (Thursday),” said Alessandro Sano, who has been covering the Churchill duty so father Antonio could attend to his Gulfstream Park West base for a few days.
“He has some different plans for the morning, a different routine. From there, we should be all set to go for Saturday morning (when he takes his van ride to Pimlico).
“We’ve been trying to mix up his training, so he doesn’t get bored doing the same thing all the time. So tomorrow it will be a different thing, just to keep the horse happy.”
Both of the Preakness contenders stabled at Keeneland, Multiplier and Senior Investment, turned in routine Thursday gallops.
Plans call for Multiplier, the Illinois Derby (G3) winner, to work on Sunday. Trainer Brendan Walsh now advises that he’ll van from Lexington on Tuesday with stablemate Conquest Windycity, who will contest the Pimlico Special (G3).