Revenge at the Preakness

Pat Forde
College football and basketball columnist
Classic Empire got roughed up in his trip at the Kentucky Derby. (Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The tackroom at Casse Racing’s Churchill Downs barn No. 36 is an eclectic collection of cozy clutter.

There is a photo of Louisville backup guard David Levitch, a 2016 barn intern, on the wall. There is a large ceramic cat outfitted with jockey goggles, an odd talisman that apparently comes with its own unstated inside joke. Among the more recent additions are two green bumper stickers that read, “I Like Kentucky-Bred Classic Empire,” the traditional marketing vehicles of the state’s breeding industry that proliferate in the weeks before the Kentucky Derby.

There’s one other item of interest, tucked over behind the ceramic cat. It’s a Todd Pletcher bobblehead, a 2006 fan giveaway at Saratoga Race Course.

Norman Casse, who assists his father, Mark, in the operation of Casse Racing, has long admired Pletcher’s sprawling and wildly profitable thoroughbred training business. But on Saturday in Baltimore, respect is out and revenge is in. The Casses and Classic Empire will be bidding to end any hope Pletcher has of winning a Triple Crown with Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming.

If any horse has a chance of derailing Always Dreaming in the Preakness, the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, it is Classic Empire. He finished fourth in the Derby, a triumph in its own right after the trauma the colt endured in that race.

In a start that was riddled with chaos, Classic Empire had the worst of it. He was body slammed on his right side by McCraken, who himself was swerving inside to avoid other veering horses.

“He got wiped out at the start,” Mark Casse said.

McCraken wasn’t finished bothering Classic Empire – a mile later he would drift into him at the top of the stretch as well. But the major damage was done early.

The collision a couple strides out of the gate destroyed any chance jockey Julien Leparoux had of placing Classic Empire near the forefront of the 20-horse field, leaving him in 13th place half a mile into the race, 12 lengths behind the leaders. It also left the colt with a lot of Churchill Downs mud kicked into his face, which might have been a factor in why Classic Empire couldn’t open his right eye the morning after the Derby. He came out of the race looking more like a beaten-down boxer than the 2-year-old champion thoroughbred.

Todd Pletcher (R) has a Triple Crown threat in Always Dreaming. (Getty Images)

That sort of racing luck usually is an invitation to finish somewhere near last, not fourth. Oftentimes it doesn’t take much for a 3-year-old to stop running hard, but Classic Empire never quit in the Derby slop.

“Classic Empire, he was pretty impressive,” said four-time Derby winner Bob Baffert. “For him to come back and finish fourth says a lot about what kind of horse he is.”

It says a lot about the horse that was established as the morning-line favorite to win the Derby. Classic Empire wound up going off at odds of 7-1, while Always Dreaming was the favorite at 9-2. Expect them to be the two top betting choices by far on Saturday, and expect an exciting duel if they both are on even footing this time around.

“He had a much tougher trip than the winner,” Norman Casse said. “From the very beginning, we were backed up against it. What a special horse he is to still run that well after that.

“It’s funny: He earned a lot more respect losing than he did winning the Arkansas Derby.”

Indeed, a lot of analysts were reluctant to buy Classic Empire’s Arkansas Derby win in April as proof that the colt was back to top form. It came after a frustrating winter, marked by an injury and a strange refusal to train, which seemingly put the Casses well behind in the conditioning race to be ready for the first Saturday in May.

Those concerns were real. Team Casse strayed a bit from the usual pre-Derby trainer bravado.

This is a sport where the “coaches” tend to speak in the opposite manner of their football and basketball counterparts – there is no poor-mouthing in horse racing, no talking down your team and building up the opponent. Every trainer says everything is going great in his barn in the days before a big race, even if it’s a damned lie.

The Casses certainly didn’t sound the alarm two weeks ago, but neither were they bragging. There were comments about simply appreciating having a horse in the Derby – not a lot of talk about winning the Derby.

“I knew he was doing well, but I know how hard it is to win that race,” Norman Casse said. “Everything has to go right all winter, and it didn’t for us. I thought we had a shot to win the Derby, but all along I thought we would win the Preakness. Now that he’s been in a real routine for two months, the real Classic Empire can show up.”

If Classic Empire was a bit behind on conditioning and seasoning, he should be closer to his peak form now. The goal with a talented 3-year-old is to hit that sweet spot on the first Saturday in May – but hitting it two weeks later could be a pretty good consolation prize.

The question is whether all the Derby adversity cost Classic Empire 8¾ lengths – the distance by which Always Dreaming beat him. If the racing luck evens out, is the fourth-place finisher good enough to turn the tables?

“Always Dreaming was a deserving winner of the race,” Norman Casse said. “All winter, he was the horse we were watching. We’re going to have to run our ‘A’ race to beat him, but we feel we have a legitimate chance of beating him on our best day.

“I can speak for Dad: We hope Always Dreaming has a great trip and we have a great trip, and we settle it on the racetrack. And hopefully it’s the start of a rivalry.”

The next-best thing to a Triple Crown bid is a pair of top 3-year-olds who split the first two legs and contest all three in the series – the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes on June 10 in New York. If Team Casse turns the Derby tables and spoils Pletcher’s party in Baltimore, it still could set the stage for a compelling rubber match at the Belmont.

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