On Track with Johnny D: Nothing ‘Classic’ About It

Classic Empire’s path to potential favoritism in the 2017 Kentucky Derby has been anything but ‘Classic.’ To review: He promptly broke maiden first out going four and one-half furlongs at Churchill Downs over a ‘sloppy’ surface. The Equibase chart footnote reports that he “…finished with a surge and kicked away.” Next out, he “rolled by the leader while full of run,” to win the six-furlong Bashford Manner Stakes by three lengths, also at Churchill over a fast track.

Favored in his next start, the seven-furlong, Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, the son of Pioneerof the Nile ignored Waze prompts and made an immediate, out-of-the-gate right-hand turn, displacing jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. It was the first and last time anyone other than Julian Leparoux rode Classic Empire…or, should we say ‘attempted’ to ride him.

Early on we realized that this colt wasn’t reminiscent of our father’s traditional Kentucky Derby favorites. You know, the kind that would run off two or three consecutive victories on the way to wearing roses in May. In fact, after the Hopeful was a good time to contemplate if this colt even had the right stuff to make it to Louisville. Champions usually possess speed, exhibit determination and exude class. They definitely don’t act a fool at the venerable Spa. Oh, sure, they might be ‘tough around the barn,’ ‘have a mind of their own,’ ‘be a handful,’ etc. But, under the bright lights, when it was showtime, they were all business. Pros.

Even though Classic Empire returned next out to romp by three lengths in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, horseplayers wouldn’t let ‘whatever happens in Saratoga to stay in Saratoga.’

Despite entering the BC Juvenile dominant and unbeaten in three starts (when he permitted his jock to remain in the saddle), Classic Empire (4.50-to-1) started as second choice in the race to Not This Time (2.80-to-1). The public nearly had it right and, hopefully, ‘boxed’ the exacta. Classic Empire won the BC Juvenile by a neck over Not This Time and, subsequently, was named 2-year-old champ.

Classic Empire’s 3-year-old debut was highly anticipated and it came on the first Saturday in February in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park. ‘Anticlimactic’ would be too optimistic a description. The champ chased (and we use the term loosely) Irish War Cry and Gunnevera home, nearly nine lengths behind the winner. ‘Aha!’ veteran horseplayers exclaimed, ‘There’s another freshman champ flopping at three!’

Not so fast, backstretch breath. Shortly after the race, an abscess was discovered in Classic Empire’s right front hoof. It was one of those ‘good news/bad news’ deals: Good news was that Classic Empire now had a valid excuse for his poor performance. Bad news was that the 2-year-old champ’s Derby prep schedule would be interrupted.

Classic Empire’s trainer Mark Casse has won over 2,200 races, including three Breeders’ Cups, and over $125 million in purses. He already is a resident of the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame and is a 2017 finalist for induction into the other ‘Hall’ located just south of the border in Saratoga. Bottom line, he knows which end eats.

In the next few months, to paraphrase a familiar line from a cinematic ‘classic,’ Casse ‘would need to call on all his powers – and all his skills to keep Classic Empire’s mother (Sambucca Classica) from seeing him this way.’

It is written, (when, where, and by whom who knows): In order to win a Kentucky Derby a 3-year-old must have an uninterrupted training and racing preparatory season. Classic Empire attempts to disprove that theory.

Once recovered from the hoof abscess, Classic Empire developed a minor back issue. In an act of defiance reminiscent of his Spa performance, he refused to work…twice. Later, Casse would compare his charge to a teenager, “Sometimes you want to strangle them, but he just has so much talent.”

Finally, on March 19, after the second time ‘Empire refused to breeze, Casse did what frustrated parents sometimes do with an incorrigible teen: He sent him to boarding school. Winding Oaks in Ocala, Fla to be precise. The institution previously known as Tartan Farms, boasts none other than Dr. Fager as its most notable alum. Classic Empire flourished there. He buried his bay head, behaved and worked well on three occasions.

Nearly one month after arriving at Winding Oaks — 70 days since his last race — as the field entered the stretch of the Arkansas Derby, Classic Empire and jockey Julian Leparoux sat fourth, three lengths behind the leader. It appeared to this observer, for a brief moment, that Classic Empire’s tank finally was empty. Too many distractions. Too much to overcome. But, like a true champion, Classic Empire rallied. He dug deep and found more. Enough for a determined closing charge. Sufficient to devour foes, again.

There’s nothing ‘Classic’ about how Classic Empire will arrive in the Louisville starting gate on the first Saturday in May, possibly as the Kentucky Derby favorite. If he wins this writer will be surprised. However, you can’t claim the crown until you knock out the champ. And, so far, no foe and no combination of circumstances have located Classic Empire’s chin.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Nothing ‘Classic’ About It

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