Classic Empire ready to go to work as Preakness approaches

Classic Empire works in preparation for the Preakness.
(Rob Carr / Getty Images)

If a person refuses to work, there’s a good chance they get fired.

If a horse refuses to work, there’s a good chance they get sent to a nice farm where they can frolic and play.

Well, maybe not quite like that, but not too far off.

This was the decision trainer Mark Casse made after Classic Empire refused to engage in a workout in the middle of the Kentucky Derby prep season.

Classic Empire wasn’t just any other horse. He was winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Eclipse Award champion 2 year old. Except for a race in which he threw his rider, he was undefeated going into the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, where he ran an uninspired third, possibly because of an abscess on his right front hoof.

Six weeks later, the colt had recovered and was being pointed toward the Blue Grass Stakes. He was scheduled to work at the Palm Meadows Training Center in south Florida. But he was having none of it. He refused to work for the second time in his young career.


Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla., beckoned.

“We went ahead and moved him to Ocala,” said Casse, standing outside the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course on a warm Wednesday morning. “We knew we had to make a change [of scenery]. And I thought if it doesn’t happen now he’s not going to make it.”

It happened. It wasn’t a great work. Slow, in fact. But it was a work.

He went on to win the Arkansas Derby, a race he needed to do well in to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

“Obviously we had a lot of emotions during the period when we were seeing if we were going to make the Derby,” Casse said.

On the morning of the Derby, Casse went to the barn to check on his colt.

“Driving home after checking on him that morning I got a little emotional,” Casse said. “It hit me, OK, we’re there. Given all the things that happened in the Derby, I was OK with it.”

Here’s what happened. Classic Empire broke from post 14, the last post in the main gate and about 13 feet from the auxiliary gate, where six other horses start.

What followed was Irish War Cry (17) crashing into McCraken (15), who crashed into Classic Empire. He was essentially out of the race a few yards out of the gate.

Afterward, he came back to the barn with cuts and a right eye that was three-quarters swollen shut.

“If you take some dominoes and you put them next to each other and you hit them, the impact isn’t as hard,” Casse said. “But if you spread them out — and that’s what happened — [the impact is much worse.]

“I don’t honestly know how he finished fourth. And then to come back with his eye the way it was. It just seemed to make him more determined. He’s fired up and ready.”

There shouldn’t be such problems Saturday in the 142nd running of the Preakness Stakes. There are only 10 starters as opposed to the 20 in the Derby.

“Ten less horses to wipe you out,” Casse said.

He’s even expected to be the co-favorite with Always Dreaming, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the only horse for whom the Triple Crown is a possibility.

“When we did our Derby analysis we found [Classic Empire] to be one of the most perplexing horses,” said Kerry Thomas of THT Bloodstock, where he studies both horse psychology and kinesiology. “He’s such a good, talented horse and it was tough trying to figure out his mental growth. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he won the race or didn’t finish the race.

“But that race left me very impressed on where he is in his psychological growth. He showed how much mental growth he made in how he handled all the chaos — and that’s all you can call it — of the Derby.”

Thomas went on to praise Casse in his handling of the horse.

“It’s a credit for the good nurturing care he’s been getting from his team,” Thomas said. “Horses have idiosyncrasies and it comes down to how you nurture those. It’s also a shared leadership thing. It’s a mistake [for either the horse or trainer] to take full control.”

If all this sounds like putting the horse on the same level as a human, chief assistant trainer and son Norm Casse isn’t afraid to go there.

“I’ve said all along that he’s probably the most intelligent horse that I’ve ever been around,” Norm Casse said. “You can tell he’s always thinking about things.

“The problem is that sometimes during training hours that gets in his way, because he’s smarter than us sometimes. But those problems — knock on wood — seem to be behind us right now.”

Classic Empire arrived at Pimlico on Monday and took his first work on Tuesday.

“I thought he was really awesome,” Norm Casse said. “I’m always a little apprehensive the first time a horse goes out to a track, especially when you come to a place like Pimlico that has a bunch of tents and a lot of things to look at.

“A lot of times he can be a little lackadaisical, but he was on the bridle. He looked really good. He had a lot of energy and more importantly, he was moving really good, looking really smooth. All of those are positive signs.”

The horse has come a long way since the most positive sign of March was when he actually went to work.