The Empire That Almost Was

Greatness is a tricky thing. We don’t know exactly from where it emanates and why some are born with it and some are not. Perhaps it starts deep within and then makes its way to the surface. But sometimes that journey is blocked by obstacles and never quite makes it.

In the case of Classic Empire, there is no doubt the greatness was there. And there is no doubt it was confronted by enough obstacles to prevent it from fully surfacing. But it did on occasion manage to trickle out; just enough to show the world what might have been.

We saw its initial emergence in his maiden race, when he was sent off at odds of 1-2 and won impressively going 4 1/2 furlongs, suggesting he was not only extremely talented, but precocious as well. We then saw it grow in his next start, the six-furlong Bashford Manor Stakes, when he staged a dramatic rally in the stretch to win by three-quarters of a length in a sizzling 1:09 1/5, a fifth of a second off the stakes record.

Unfortunately, he hit the first of several obstacles in the Hopeful Stakes when, at odds of 8-5, he possibly caught sight of the auxiliary starting gate at the break, slammed on the brakes and wheeled to the outside fence, throwing jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.

This would be the first of a number of odd occurrences that would hamper his emergence as a superstar. As if aborting a grade 1 race at the start wasn’t enough, his tendency to stand around motionless after one of his episodes and take it all in resulted on this occasion in an ambulance ride back to his barn. To compound the problem, when he wheeled to the right he hit the inside of his sesamoid on his right front leg.

“After he did that he literally did not move,” said assistant trainer Norman Casse, son of trainer Mark Casse. “He stopped, looked down at Irad, and just stared at him. They didn’t know what to do with him. People started sending out Twitter messages and I had to put something out that he was fine.”

Back at the barn he could hardly walk. He had a hematoma the size of a golf ball on the inside of his ankle. Within 15 minutes it was gone and he was walking perfectly and bouncing around. But because he was taken off the track in an ambulance, he was placed on the vet’s list.

Now no one knew what to make of the horse. Was he just flighty and quirky or did he have serious mental issues? Mark and Norm decided to start training him in blinkers to keep him focused and it seemed to help. What also helped was being under the care of assistant trainer David Carroll, a veteran trainer in his own right who had placed in the Kentucky Derby and had been the exercise rider of Hall of Famer Easy Goer.

He was far more polished and professional when they ran him in the grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland. With everyone holding their breath to see what antics, if any, he would pull, he was the consummate pro throughout the race, drawing off to a three-length victory, setting him up for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and a chance to lock up the 2-year-old championship.

The bettors were still a bit unsure what to make of him and sent him off at a generous 9-2. In one of the most impressive performances ever seen in the BC Juvenile, he pressed the pace, opened a clear lead at the eighth pole, and then dug in gamely to hold off the late charge of 5-2 favorite Not This Time, who trainer Dale Romans said was the best Kentucky Derby prospect he’d ever trained. What made the performance of both colts so impressive was the 7 1/2-length gap back to the third-place finisher Practical Joke, winner of the Hopeful and Champagne Stakes. The power of this performance was reflected in the 102 Beyer speed figure.

While Not This Time had a strong group of followers, Classic Empire was the champ and now was the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby, his bizarre behavior in the Hopeful well behind him. His sire, Pioneerof the Nile, had already sired a Triple Crown winner and his broodmare sire, Cat Thief, had won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He had the right running style, displaying excellent tactical speed and a high cruising speed, and appeared to have straightened out whatever mental problems he had displayed in the Hopeful.

Everything seemed as perfect as it could be, as the New Year passed and it was time to embark on the Kentucky Derby trail. He was now the clear-cut favorite for the Run For the Roses following the retirement in November of Not This Time due to a soft tissue injury. First stop was the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park on February 4, and as expected, Classic Empire was sent off as the 1-2 favorite.

What happened between 2 and 3 no one knows, but it appeared that whatever demons plagued him in the Hopeful had resurfaced. All seemed normal as the colt was placed on a van at Palm Meadows training center and headed down to Gulfstream.

During the trip, he was a wreck, fretting badly throughout the entire trip. When he stepped off the van at Gulfstream he was completely washed out. Norm Casse had been at the track saddling several of their other horses, and when he came back to the barn to see Classic Empire a couple of hours before the race, he couldn’t believe what he saw. His first reaction was “Oh my God.”

“I knew we were screwed,” he said. “He was terrible in the barn and just wouldn’t settle down. We brought him to the paddock and he still was completely washed out. He was a totally different horse. Obviously something was nagging him because he was never like that in the paddock or in a race.”

Classic Empire didn’t run badly under the circumstances, finishing third, but as a 1-2 choice and favorite for the Kentucky Derby, getting beaten 8 3/4 lengths was a major step backward and resulted in a mass exodus off his bandwagon. He was now back to the mental case everyone had witnessed at Saratoga. The question on everyone’s mind was, how is a horse like this going to handle the pandemonium of the Kentucky Derby?

But Mark and Norman Casse knew he was far from crazy. They had been around him too long and had seen how he was at the barn every day, how easy he was to train, and how professional he was. They knew the Hopeful incident was attributed to either hitting his ankle or his affinity to look at things, like a starting gate where it shouldn’t have been.

Following the Holy Bull debacle, it was discovered that Classic Empire was suffering from a foot abscess. Because this was the first time the colt had vanned to a track the day of a race it was decided his next race would be anywhere but at Gulfstream. But that didn’t last long and it was decided to give him another chance and point for the Fountain of Youth Stakes. So was it the abscess that caused his behavior or did he simply have mental issues?

They worked on his foot and soon it appeared completely healed, but another warning flare went up when he missed a scheduled work and then one morning he refused to breeze. Unbeknownst to most people, Classic Empire was having back problems and he was sent 20 minutes away to Wellington, which is one of the largest jumping horse areas in the world. They had him looked at by specialists, because these kinds of back problems are common in the show horse world. The colt was worked on by acupuncturists, chiropractors, and specialists in muscle relaxing, and in a short while he was back to normal. It was pure speculation that the back problems were what caused his refusal to work, but it was something that needed to be addressed and corrected.

By now, Classic Empire was known endearingly around the barn as “Bad boy.”

However, the bottom line was that time was running out to make the Kentucky Derby. They had missed the Fountain of Youth and then the Florida Derby, and it was decided to give him only one more race, either the Blue Grass Stakes or Arkansas Derby, to see if he could bounce back in a big way and run well enough to move on to Churchill Downs.

But things didn’t get any better, and Norm, who was in charge of the day-to-day training of the colt, couldn’t get him to train at Palm Meadows. The entire winter had been frustrating, knowing that the horse’s immense talent was trying desperately to get out, only to be suppressed by one incident after another.

The best and most productive two months of his racing career had been following the Hopeful Stakes when everything went right and it looked as if they had things under control. Classic Empire was doing everything like a true professional and did everything perfectly. But his 3-year-old campaign in Florida had been a disaster, especially trying to train him at Palm Meadows. None of the Derby prognosticators had a clue what to do with him in their rankings, and yours truly had him jumping up and down like a pogo stick on the Derby Dozen, even dropping him off the top 12 for a while after being ranked No. 1 in January.

Finally, Norm had reached the end of his tether. He told his father, “Dad, I’m done. This horse will not train for us here. We have to try something else.”

What they decided on was truly inspiring. They sent the colt to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, where he had grown up and received his early training. Mark Casse had been closely attached to the farm, which had a rich history. It originally had been Tartan Farm, one of the great breeding establishments that helped pave the way for the Florida breeding industry’s explosion. Owned by William McKnight, the farm was built and run by the iconic John Nerud, who also trained the Tartan horses. This was the birthplace of the legendary Dr. Fager and his sister Ta Wee, along with all the other Tartan greats, such as Codex and Dr. Patches and so many others, and where In Reality was raised the same year as Dr. Fager.

When Tartan disbanded it became Mockingbird Farm, owned by Harry Mangurian, and then purchased by Eugene Melnyk.

So here was Classic Empire, away from the turmoil of Palm Meadows, and in the tranquil and familiar setting of Winding Oaks Farm, not more than a quarter mile away from the graves of Dr. Fager, Ta Wee, and all the Tartan greats, along with super stallion Intentionally and the first Filly Triple Crown winner Dark Mirage.

It was as if the ghosts of the past greats had exorcised Classic Empire’s demons, as the colt made a complete turnaround, not only working willingly and on schedule, but turning in brilliant five-furlong drills in  :59 3/5, out six furlongs in 1:12 1/5, and :59 1/5.

In his first work at the farm, they used the same rider who worked the colt when he was baby, Martin Rivera, who weighed 160 pounds. When Classic Empire blew around there in 1:01 2/5 for the five furlongs with that much weight on his back, it was exactly what they were hoping to see. For his next two works, jockey Julien Leparoux drove out to work him.

“It’s an incredible story to be honest,” Norm Casse said. “It was a humble experience for me. Do you know what it’s like to send the Derby favorite away, saying ‘I don’t want to train the Derby favorite here, I think he needs to leave?’ It takes a lot of humility. But we had no choice. We had to do what was best for the horse and send him back to where it all started.”

Mark Casse said that Phil Hronec, who had been manager of Winding Oaks for Melnyk for over 15 years, and had horses like Speightstown and Flower Alley training there, told him he’d never seen a horse work like Classic Empire did.

Casse could see a dramatic change in the colt. “He’s so intelligent,” he said. “I would be grazing him at the farm and he would watch the horses train as they went by. If I had dropped his shank he would have just stood there and not take off. I was answering phone calls and I’d have the phone in one hand and him in the other. The general manager Mitch Downes came by one morning and said, ‘You’re driving me crazy holding him with one hand.’ And I told him, ‘He’s not going anywhere.’”

It was decided to give the colt an extra week and point for the Arkansas Derby, a race in which he had to run huge to get enough points to make the Kentucky Derby field. No one really knew what to expect, with Classic Empire having had so many interruptions and not having raced since the Holy Bull some 2 1/2 months earlier.

“We were a little apprehensive whether he’d be fit enough to win,” Norm said. “I thought he’d run a big race, but just didn’t know if it would be good enough to win. But I felt confident the race would give him the fitness and foundation to win the Kentucky Derby. Even if he won he would have to move forward off the race.”

In the Arkansas Derby, Classic Empire was taken back to seventh, but only about two to three lengths off the solid pace set by Conquest Mo Money and longshot Grandpa’s Dream. Nearing the head of the stretch, he was still sixth and had to go four-wide to launch his bid. Still third at the eighth pole, he relentlessly closed in on the Conquest Mo Money and Rebel winner Malagacy, getting up to win by a half-length in a solid 1:48 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles. It was an excellent prep for the Derby, coming off only one disappointing effort in the past 5 1/2 months, and left a lot of room for improvement. And most of all he handled everything like a pro. The Casses had done a remarkable job getting him back into Derby contention, as he climbed back near the top of most rankings. Was it finally time for Classic Empire’s greatness to emerge, with no more obstacles to overcome?

Unfortunately, the black cloud that had been hanging over the colt’s head for most of his racing career would not go away. With the track coming up sloppy, Classic Empire was bumped hard from the outside at the start and squeezed back, dropping back to 13th and stuck in heavy traffic. He launched his bid on the outside, but was fanned some seven to eight wide turning for home, while the Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming was getting a perfect ground-saving trip, taking over the lead at the half-mile pole.

Classic Empire was bumped again at the three-sixteenths pole, but continued to close well out in the middle of the track, finishing fourth, while just missing third by a half-length. The way the race played out, Always Dreaming got the trip Classic Empire usually gets, and most likely would have gotten had it not been for the troubled start.

In the Preakness, he was hustled out of the gate and this time took it to Always Dreaming, pressing him the whole way and not letting him get a breather, as he was able to do in the Derby. Rounding the turn, Classic Empire showed his class and brilliance, putting Always Dreaming away and finding himself with a length lead turning for home. He continued to pour it on, opening up by three lengths at the eighth pole. It appeared he had the race won, but Cloud Computing came charging up on his outside. Classic Empire battled back, but fell a head short, galloping out well clear of the winner. The Casses had their first classic victory in their hands, and somehow it slipped away.

With the Belmont Stakes wide open and up for grabs, Classic Empire’s black cloud once again appeared. It was discovered the colt had suffered a recurrence of the foot abscess that had plagued him following the Holy Bull. When the Casses arrived at the barn, he could hardly get around he was in so much discomfort. The Belmont Stakes was out, and with it, the last chance for a classic victory.

There was still the Haskell Invitational and Travers ahead, but the foot just wouldn’t heal properly and continued to cause problems, forcing the colt to miss both of the big summer races, as well as the Pennsylvania Derby and ultimately the Breeders’ Cup Classic. As hard as they tried, they were never able to get him back to where he was and at the top of his game.

Finally, the Casses and owner John Oxley decided that the hand Classic Empire had been dealt was no longer worth playing and they retired him on October 18 to Coolmore’s Ashford Stud.

So ended one of the strangest and most eventful journeys ever by a champion racehorse. Classic Empire will not go down as a great horse, but there is little doubt that there was greatness in him. We saw just enough of it at times to convince us how talented he was and how special he could have been. It can only be hoped that his offspring, especially those destined for greatness, will not have to overcome the obstacles that deprived their sire of his rightful place in history.

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