Classic Empire’s trainer Mark Casse has announced that he will miss his scheduled run in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on March 4. His star colt is still suffering from the effects of the foot abscess that is believed to be responsible for his disappointing performance at the same track last time out.
That was in the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes on February 4. Classic Empire had deserved to start as the red hot favorite at 1/2, he was the champion male juvenile and Casse had been pleased with his progress at home. For reasons that were not apparent at the time Classic Empire could only finish third, beaten nearly nine lengths by the 4/1 shot, Irish War Cry trained by Graham Motion (pictured).
The 3/1 second favorite Gunnevera, saddled by Antonio Sano, finished in the position the betting suggested but four lengths behind the wrong horse. Talk Logistics took fourth, five lengths behind him.
The Holy Bull was Classic Empire’s debut as a three-year-old. This son of Pioneerof The Nile, sire of American Pharoah, had previously been seen winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita on November 5 and triumphing in top class company at Keeneland. Lofty aspirations that included the Triple Crown were immediately put on hold.
Meanwhile Motion was understandably excited by Irish War Cry’s assured performance. It was his first experience of graded company and only his third start. Irish War Cry was a late foal, born on May 2, and began his career with a win at Laurel Park in November.
Next time out on December 31 Irish War Cry started as the 30/100 favorite in the Marylander Stakes at the same track but won by the narrowest of margins under Fergal Lynch. Yes, he got the job done but he did not look like a potential star.
Motion admitted that it was a difficult decision to take on Classic Empire with this striking chestnut son of Curlin but the way that he was working persuaded him to aim high. That gamble paid out as Irish War Cry gained a valuable 10 points for a Kentucky Derby starting gate.
Irish War Cry had jumped well from stall five and galloped into the lead under Joel Rosario and was never seriously challenged. Talk Logistics took second position for the majority of the race with Classic Empire in third. Rosario admitted he was expecting the favorite to come past him but he never even managed to get alongside.
Rosario was allowed to set his own fractions and, although he asked for an effort turning into the stretch, did not have to get physical to maintain a good distance ahead of his closest pursuer. Rosario was also pleased with the way Irish War Cry quickened when asked and is hoping that he can build on the biggest win of the colt’s very short racing career.
Whilst the Motion team were on a high, Classic Empire’s connections were left scratching their heads. There were no obvious mitigating circumstances for Classic Empire’s defeat in running, it appeared that he was simply not good enough on the day. Casse usually knows better than most if his horses are in good shape and there was no indicator prior to the Holy Bull that his colt was likely to underperform.
Classic Empire was unbeaten as a juvenile, except when he managed to dump Irad Ortiz Jr in the dirt at Saratoga in the Hopeful Stakes. He veered dramatically to the right when the gates opened and Ortiz exited via the side door. It was the first and last time that Ortiz got to ride him. Casse subsequently decided to equip Classic Empire with blinkers and there have been no starting issues since.
The colt was purchased for $475,000 as a yearling at Keeneland by John C. Oxley and looked a very good buy, earning prize money of over $1 million. He was the male champion juvenile of 2016, winning two Grade 1 contests.
What was wrong with Classic Empire?
Immediately after the Holy Bull the only worrying thing that had been noted was that Classic Empire had become hotter than usual in the parade. He showed no signs of lameness after the race or when he returned home. It was a couple of days later that he could hardly walk and veterinary examinations revealed that he had a foot abscess.
Casse commented as soon as it was diagnosed that the abscess must have been developing and causing some discomfort when Classic Empire ran in the Holy Bull. Abscesses can take a while to become apparent and, although it had not been troubling the colt in slower work at home, Casse thought it was probably the reason that he failed to run his race.
It must have been quite some abscess because it was still discharging its gruesome contents when Casse reported that Classic Empire would not be running in the Fountain of Youth on February 19. The colt has not been confined to his stable but Casse has sensibly decided not to breeze him until the abscess is fully drained.
His decision looks to be a wise one. Why would any horse retain its enthusiasm for racing if galloping at race speed was a cause of pain? When you have a colt of this quality you have to look after him rather than risk souring him.
Fortunately Classic Empire already holds the leading position with 32 points for the Kentucky Derby. Casse is not worried about the slight break in his colt’s training schedule. He managed to win the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland after a four month absence from the track.
The current plan is to have at least one run before the Kentucky Derby on May 6, for which the colt is a 16/1 shot, but Casse is cautious about naming a specific target. If Classic Empire is able to demonstrate that his talent is undiminished when free of pain then he is likely to be much less generously priced in the Kentucky Derby futures betting with the American sportsbooks than he is right now.