Champion Classic Empire breezed a half-mile in :50 over the fast main track at Churchill Downs on Friday ahead of the 149th running of the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park on June 10.
Classic Empire worked in company with Grade 2 hero Airoforce, clocking splits of :24.30 and :37.50 before galloping out five-eighths in 1:04 with regular exercise rider Martin Rivera aboard. Airoforce was caught in :52.
“Obviously we’ve run in a lot of big races in a short amount of time, so we weren’t really looking for much – a :49, :50-type work,” said assistant trainer Norman Casse, who oversees the Churchill Downs operation for his dad, trainer Mark Casse. “Just liked to see him on the bridle, see him with good energy and see that he’s moving well and he (checked) all the boxes. He worked really well this morning, and it’s all systems go.
“Only thing I wish could have been different in the work – and I don’t think it has any significance on the way he’s going to perform – is that Airoforce would have worked better because it would have given him more of a target. But you know what? Maybe he learned to put away horses.”
Classic Empire is one of only two horses who will compete in all three legs of the 2017 Triple Crown. After taking the Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park on April 15, the Pioneerof the Nile colt rallied for fourth in the Kentucky Derby (G1) despite a rough trip. Next out in the Preakness Stakes (G1), he dueled Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming into submission and appeared a clear winner in the stretch at Pimlico, but was forced to settle for second by a head when caught by Cloud Computing.
“Going into the Preakness, we were really excited that he was sitting on his A-plus race, having had the race in Arkansas and the Kentucky Derby,” Casse said. “Now, with a big, big effort like he had in the Preakness, you’re always a little bit wary whether or not he’s going to regress a little bit.
“He hasn’t shown any sign of regression. He’s been on the bridle, he’s been happy. I just think going into the Belmont that we can be really confident that he’s going to run his A race again.”
Classic Empire may receive an equipment change for the Belmont, though it’s still uncertain if his trainer will remove the blinkers or not.
“We talked about removing blinkers right after the Preakness,” Casse said. “That decision is still up in the air. He’s never breezed with them and didn’t this morning again.”
Classic Empire is scheduled to fly out of Louisville, Kentucky, on Tuesday for New York. He’ll be joined on the flight by a number of stablemates who also worked Friday morning at Churchill and are targeting contest during the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.
Dual Grade 3 winner Awesome Slew, a head second in the Churchill Downs Stakes (G2) on the Kentucky Derby (G1) undercard, breezed a bullet four furlongs in :47 for the $1.2 million Metropolitan Mile (G1).
“Down at Palm Meadows, the first time I worked him I was overwhelmed. I was like, ‘Wow, this horse is a serious racehorse,’” Casse said of Awesome Slew. “We decided to take the blinkers off, cut him back to seven-eighths-mile distances, thinking that might suit him better. It’s worked out really well the last three starts. The idea was to run him in the Met Mile all along, and right now it seems like the plan is coming together really well.”
Grade 1 victor World Approval, winner of the Dixie Stakes (G2) last out on May 20, posted a time of :48.20 while covering a half-mile in company for the $1 million Manhattan Stakes (G1).
“This winter was a little bit of a challenge with World Approval,” Casse continued. “He didn’t seem his old self. We ran him in a state-bred race at Tampa, and he really ran awesome, better than we expected. I don’t know if a light bulb came back on or we woke him back up, but he’s been tremendous ever since. He ran an awesome race in the Dixie and worked well this morning. I’m really excited about the potential of winning another Grade 1 stakes with this horse on Belmont Day.”
Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2) vixen Salty, headed to the $700,000 Acorn Stakes (G1) off a fifth in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), also worked in company. The Quality Road filly turned four panels in :48.40 with Grade 1 queen Pretty City Dancer, who is headed to the $150,000 Jersey Girl Stakes.
“Salty is just an awesome horse, a joy to train. She’s such a professional. She always puts a lot of effort into her work,” Casse said. “You know she’s going to run her A race for you; she’s never run a bad race. She had a tough trip in the Kentucky Oaks. We really want to get a Grade 1 win with her, and we think we have a big shot Saturday (in the Acorn).
“(Pretty City Dancer has) been a real disappointment, there’s no other way to say it. She works like she’s one of the best horses we’ve ever trained. You get goosebumps watching her work, but she hasn’t seemed to put it together. I think we haven’t found out what her niche is – cutting her back to sprinting distance, we’re thinking that might be it. But she’s always worked well and you expect her to run well. We just have to figure out what she wants to do.”