Casse is determined to try to turn the tables here because he, like many others, thinks Classic Empire is the best horse of his generation.
The trainer has a foundation for this argument. His colt was four for five last year in spectacular fashion and was named the 2-year-old champion. His pedigree is impeccable: His father, Pioneerof the Nile, sired the 2015 Triple Crown champion, American Pharoah.
So far as a 3-year-old, however, Classic Empire has been a hard-luck colt. After finishing a disappointing third in the Holy Bull in early February, he developed hoof problems as well as a disdain for training.
Casse has acknowledged that the colt has always been difficult to handle — he wheeled and dumped his rider at the start of the Hopeful Stakes last year in Saratoga. But this winter, after the colt refused to train in the morning, Casse sent him to Ocala, Fla., to a center away from the racetrack to freshen him up.
“It’s like he was in a car accident and didn’t want to return to the scene,” he said.
The change of scenery helped get him back on track.
Last month, he won the Arkansas Derby impressively and looked like a real threat to win the Kentucky Derby. Then, it rained and Classic Empire was body-checked at the start.
Yet Casse said Classic Empire had been a different colt since the Derby, a feisty one who likes going to work. Finally.
“You know what I like about him is he’s eager to go to the track,” Casse said.
Besides determining whether a Triple Crown will hang in the balance three weeks from now in the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness has become a reliable predictor of which horse will be named the top 3-year-old male in the year-end Eclipse Awards: In the last 20 years, only five Preakness champs did not receive those honors. One of them, Rachel Alexandra, was a filly and not eligible for the award but, on the strength of a brilliant campaign, was named Horse of the Year in 2009.
The second jewel in the Triple Crown, the Preakness has also proved the most predictable for bettors and the least profitable of the three races. In the last 20 years, favorites captured the race nine times. When they did not win, a short price horse often did. The average Preakness payoff for a $2 bet over that span was $10.62 vs. $28.55 in the Kentucky Derby and $32.80 in the Belmont Stakes.
If Classic Empire is to move to the head of the 3-year-old class, he must overcome a very game and lightly raced Always Dreaming. That colt has won his last four races, including the Derby, by an impressive 23¼ lengths. He has been deftly handled by his trainer, Todd Pletcher, who is as good a sabermetrician as he is a horseman. He is a seven-time champion trainer whose horses have totaled a staggering $339 million in earnings.
He has won two Derbys and two Belmonts, but no Preaknesses. Why? Pletcher has run only eight horses here previously because he thinks bringing a horse back in two weeks is too difficult. He prefers five weeks between races and usually takes his Derby contenders back to his base in New York to train up to the Belmont Park.
When you are the Derby winner, however, you don’t have that option. In 2010, his colt Super Saver won the Derby on a similar wet track, then came here and finished eighth. He concedes that it’s a tall order, but this time he hopes to prevail.
“The horse is doing unbelievably well in the two-week turnaround,” Pletcher said. “The way he’s moving, the way he’s acting, the way he’s getting over the track, we feel really blessed that he’s coming into the race this way. I’m someone who has been in a lot of races and lost a lot of races, so I know you don’t want to be overconfident, but I do feel very, very good about the way he’s coming into it.”
So the fight is on.
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