Race of the Week 2017

Belmont Stakes 2017 is next for 'Bad Boy' Classic Empire

Classic Empire wins 2017 Arkansas Derby
Photo: Coady Photography

Belmont Stakes 2017 early favorite Classic Empire stays the course after suffering tough defeats in both of the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Known as “Racing’s Bad Boy,” the bay colt has endured a trail of trials and tribulations.


By Pioneerof the Nile and owned by John C. Oxley, Classic Empire flashed his talent during his first two starts. He won his career debut at Churchill Downs and ran down Recruiting Ready in the six-furlong Grade 3 Bashford Manor Stakes. The margin of victory was only three-quarters of a length, but Recruiting Ready, who currently has a three-race win streak sprinting, was nine lengths ahead of the third place finisher.


Following those two victories, Classic Empire headed to Saratoga for the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes. His reputation landed him as the favorite, but the young colt was barely out of the gate when he wheeled right and dumped his jockey. Practical Joke went on to win, and Classic Empire had the first blemish on his short career. There was never a clear reason as to why the juvenile made such a maneuver, but it was the start of his bad boy nickname.


Classic Empire got another shot at earning his Grade 1 status next out in the Breeders’ Futurity, but this time blinkers were added for safe measure. The gates opened and Classic Empire broke clean, sat in third, and drew off to win by three lengths over Lookin At Lee. Whatever occurred in his previous start appeared to be behind him, as he went back to his winning ways.


After the race, Norm Casse, assistant to his father and trainer Mark Casse, commented, “This is a very, very talented horse. The day after the Hopeful, we got right to work on him. We put blinkers on him; we breezed him out of the gate several times. It paid dividends today. We’ll move forward from here. You’ve got to think this horse has plenty of room to improve.”


Respect for Classic Empire grew even more and he entered the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as one of the top contenders. While Not This Time was the favorite, Julien Leparoux rode Classic Empire to a perfect trip in second, and held off Not This Time by a neck. Practical Joke was another 7 ½ lengths back in third.



“I have been doing this 37 years,” Mark Casse stated, “and I thought his race in the Bashford Manor was as good as any two-year-old I've ever trained. Then his deal he did in the Hopeful up at Saratoga, so this is maybe even a little more rewarding because it hasn't been easy. He'll try you.”


With four wins in five stars, including a Breeders’ Cup win, Classic Empire was the obvious choice for the Eclipse Award as 2016 Champion Two-Year-Old Colt. With a total of 30 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby from his last two races, Classic Empire headed into the Grade 2 Holy Bull for his three-year-old debut. As the clear favorite, regular rider Leparoux kept his mount in a stalking position, but Classic Empire failed to respond in the stretch and finished third behind Irish War Cry and Gunnevera, earning only two points. The juvenile champ still held the top position on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, but other horses were starting to close the gap.


Soon after the Holy Bull, it was discovered Classic Empire had a hoof abscess. His puzzling performance finally made sense. With the Holy Bull in early February, there was ample time to recover before the Kentucky Derby, but a March race was ruled out. Classic Empire was scheduled to have his first work back at the end of March, but the colt refused to breeze at the Palm Meadows. A change of scenery to Ocala seemed to do the trick for the bad boy, as did treatment to relieve soreness in his back, likely a result of the hoof abscess.



The points toward the Kentucky Derby starting gate increased during the next round of prep races, and Classic Empire was now on the outside looking in. His final prep race would be the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, and all eyes turned to Oaklawn Park to see if the champ would bounce back. If he failed to earn enough points, what was the Kentucky Derby favorite would not even be in the race. Classic Empire did not disappoint, though. He and Leparoux bided their time in mid-pack and unleashed a wide but victorious rally turning for home, earning the winner’s share of 100 points.


Casse commented, “I knew if we could get him here that he’d be tough. He’s been a challenge, but the last month and a half have been good — a lot of chapters to the book I’m writing (laughs). About the eighth pole everybody around me started looking, because I was doing some yelling. I wasn’t sure he was going to get there. I was afraid that maybe late he’d get tired. But it was exciting. I’ll never forget it



The champ was back and Kentucky Derby bound. He ultimately finished fourth to Always Dreaming, but all that he overcame in the race showed his true talent. Classic Empire broke from post 14, moved a bit out at the start, and then was crunched by horses scrambling for the rail. The kickback from the sloppy track was also flung into the colt’s eye, causing it to swell shut. Despite running in thirteenth early, getting physically banged up in the 20 horse field, and dealing with a swollen eye, the champ came charging up the track to capture fourth.


The Preakness Stakes provided a rematch between Classic Empire and Always Dreaming, and Classic Empire put pressure on the Derby winner right from the start. Always Dreaming was on the lead with the juvenile champ pushing him the whole time. While the Derby winner came up empty turning for home, Classic Empire looked like the winner. The streak of bad luck continued though, as Cloud Computing, a new shooter on the Triple Crown trail, nabbed him at the wire to win the middle jewel.



The nickname sticks around, but the bad boy streak has been left behind. Instead, a champion who has run two winning races without capturing a victory is back for the Belmont Stakes. Classic Empire has been nothing but down to business in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Racing’s bad boy will likely run his race, but will need to overcome one more set of hurdles to claim the Triple Crown's final leg.



By Christine Oser


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