Mark Casse's path to the Kentucky Derby with Classic Empire has been a difficult one.
The veteran trainer was hoping the champion three-year-old colt would run in three prep races leading up to the Derby on May 6. But Classic Empire was third in his only start of the season and last month required treatment for a back injury Casse figures was caused by a foot abscess the horse developed following a Feb. 4 race.
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and last year's top two-year-old North American thoroughbred will run Saturday in the US$1-million Arkansas Derby. Despite the setbacks, Casse, eight times Canada's top trainer, believes Classic Empire is fit enough to win the Grade 1 1 1/8-mile race on dirt at Oaklawn Park.
"If you told me a month ago we could be where we are right now I would've happily taken it," Casse said during a conference call Tuesday. "It's been a tough road but luckily the last month has went very well.
"Do I wish we'd had another start? Of course I do. But I put three strong works in for him and the good news for him is he's not a big, robust horse, he's just an athlete so it's not like he carries a lot of excess weight. He has a tremendous amount of ability, which will help him out as well."
There are major Kentucky Derby qualifying points up for grabs in the Arkansas Derby. The top four finishers will receive 100, 40, 20 and 10 points respectively towards one of 20 available spots in Louisville.
Classic Empire is currently No. 21 in the standings with 32 points but Canadian-bred State of Honor — another Casse-trained horse — is 10th with 62 points. State of Honor was second to Always Dreaming in the $1-million Grade 1 Florida Derby on April 1 and is listed as the 6-1 third-choice in the Queen's Plate Winterbook.
But Casse said it will be up to Classic Empire to prove Saturday he deserves a spot in Kentucky.
"I think he has to finish one, two, three. Maybe four," Casse said. "If he doesn't do that then we don't need to be going to the Kentucky Derby, then we need to look elsewhere maybe aim for the Preakness or do something like that.
"The only thing is it would be unfortunate if he got a little unlucky and something happened to him but we made this bed and we're going to have to sleep in it. I'm not worried about it . . . we've done all we can do. If he qualifies, good, then he deserves to go. If he doesn't we'll go to Plan B."
The American-owned and bred Classic Empire won four-of-five races last year and amassed earnings over $1.4 million. He capped last season beating 5-2 favourite Not This Time by a neck in the $2-million Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Yet in the minds of many, the Todd Pletcher-trained Always Dreaming is considered the Kentucky Derby favourite. However, Casse feels Classic Empire could change that thinking by winning Saturday.
"I may be a little biased but I have to think if our horse were to run well and win that he's going to be the favourite for the Kentucky Derby," Casse said. "But, again, I may be a little biased."
Given the hurdles both Casse and Classic Empire have faced thus far, it's a debate Casse would gladly accept being in the middle of.
"I hope Saturday night that's my biggest problem," he said with a chuckle.
Classic Empire showed good form Saturday morning, breezing a half mile in 50 seconds at Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla. Casse moved Classic Empire there from Palm Meadows Training Centre, where the horse twice refused to work out.
"I don't know what it is, they can't speak to us but the good news is he's not doing it anymore," Casse said. "We know he has the ability, we just needed him to be happy and he's happy right now.
"I've never once counted him out. I know a lot of people have (but) I feel ability-wise he's the most talented horse out there right now. Yes, it's been difficult but we're here so we're going to do our best."
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press