Belmont Doings: Classic Empire puts in (mostly) routine work


LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Classic Empire, the likely favorite for the 149th Belmont Stakes next Saturday at Belmont Park, was sent through his only serious move leading into the third jewel of the Triple Crown, breezing a half-mile in 50 seconds early Friday over a fast Churchill Downs surface.

The work was supposed to come in tandem with Airoforce, his Mark Casse-trained stablemate, but Classic Empire started off too far ahead on the backstretch and proceeded to go solo. That was the only glitch in an otherwise routine drill, which assistant trainer Norman Casse was all too glad to accept.

“Nothing is orthodox about the way we have to train this horse,” said Casse, who is Mark’s son.

Earlier in the year, Classic Empire, owned by John Oxley, was famously reluctant to train as the Casses struggled to make the Kentucky Derby with him. Over the last couple of months, however, Classic Empire has been on good behavior while reascending to the top of his class. He finished fourth with trouble behind Always Dreaming in the May 6 Derby before being narrowly defeated by Cloud Computing in the May 20 Preakness.

Combined with what he accomplished as the 2-year-old male champion of 2016, his feats this year have prompted voters in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll to make him the top-rated 3-year-old in North America in the two weeks since the Preakness.

Perhaps more importantly, the Casses are very optimistic about his chances in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. In a field that could swell to the 16-horse limit, Classic Empire undoubtedly will be favored.

“We’re as excited as you can be coming into a race,” said Norman Casse, who is overseeing the Churchill string while his father tends to some of the huge stable’s other horses in Ocala, Fla. “We’ve got the big dog coming into this fight. We’ll have the bull’s-eye on our back; we understand that.”

The Friday work came shortly after dawn broke at about 6:15 a.m. With regular work rider Martin Rivera in from Ocala, Classic Empire went in splits of 24.60 and 37.50 seconds, according to Churchill clocker John Nichols, with a five-furlong gallop-out time of 1:04.

The work didn’t come off as it was drawn up on paper, but Casse quickly waved that off.

“The most important thing is we just got it done,” said Casse, who watched from the fourth-floor clubhouse. “You never know when this horse might throw a curveball at you. Even though he’s been good lately, you still worry about it.

“All things considered, I thought the work was perfect. Here’s a horse that’s run in a lot of races in a short amount of time. We weren’t trying to go any faster than 49, 50 anyways. It looked like he was moving really well through the stretch, and he had plenty left galloping out. Those are all the indicators we were looking for.”

Classic Empire has worn blinkers in all six of his races since he wheeled at the start of the Hopeful last September at Saratoga, but he was not equipped with blinkers for the Friday work.

“We haven’t been working him in blinkers because we don’t really like mixing things up too much with him in the morning,” said Casse.

Mark Casse said after the Preakness that he thought Classic Empire might not have seen Cloud Computing closing on him and that he would consider removing the blinkers for the Belmont. But that decision has not been made.

“I’m comfortable with it either way,” said Norman Casse.

Classic Empire is booked among a large shipment of Kentucky-based horses on a charter flight Tuesday from Louisville to New York.

Patch in, True Timber out

Calumet Farm ran three horses in the Kentucky Derby and two in the Preakness. While Calumet initially planned to run two in the Belmont Stakes, its lone runner will be Patch, the Louisiana Derby runner-up and 14th-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby.

Patch was confirmed for the Belmont by trainer Todd Pletcher following a workout by the 3-year-old Friday at Belmont Park.

True Timber, Calumet Farm’s other intended runner for the Belmont, was withdrawn from consideration by trainer Kiaran McLaughlin after the horse had to be treated for a temperature Friday. True Timber, second in the Grade 3 Withers in February, figured to be one of the longer-priced horses in the field.

Meanwhile, Patch worked five furlongs in 1:01.48 on Friday over Belmont’s main track. He worked in company with Tapwrit, who is also starting in the Belmont for Pletcher. The two went together through an opening three furlongs in 37.06 seconds and got their last quarter in 24.42.

Regarding Patch, Pletcher said: “I was happy with the work today. Just exchanged quick texts with the ownership. They’re happy to run, so if he comes out of it well, I think we plan to go.”

Tapwrit, who was going the easier of the two in the work, was always being considered for the Belmont since his sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. Neither horse, according to Pletcher, is an exceptional work horse.

“They’re similar styles,” he said. “They’re grinding-type styles and not overzealous work horses, so they made a good pair.”

Patch ran in the Kentucky Derby off just one win from three starts. He drew post 20 in the Kentucky Derby and got a decent trip early before finishing 14th, beaten 21 lengths by Always Dreaming. He is by Union Rags, the 2012 Belmont winner, and his dam’s sire, A.P. Indy, won the 1992 Belmont.

“There’s a lot of pedigree there to suggest he’s bred to get the mile and a half, and I think his style should suit the race well,” Pletcher said.

The defection of True Timber, coupled with that of Conquest Mo Money on Thursday, leaves the likely field for the Belmont Stakes at 12.

Six of the 12 were expected to put in workouts Saturday at five different locations. That includes Irish War Cry at Fair Hill and J Boys Echo at Churchill Downs. Robby Albarado, who rode J Boys Echo to victory in the Grade 3 Gotham at Aqueduct, got back on horses Thursday for the first time since breaking his leg in April and could ride J Boys Echo in the Belmont “if he’s ready,” trainer Dale Romans told the Churchill Downs publicity department.