Derby favorite Classic Empire an enigmatic star

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- About 1,900 horses reside on the backstretch at Churchill Downs. Every morning, they are groomed, tacked up and led to the racetrack, where they jog, gallop or breeze and then return to their stable.

For a racetracker, the process hardly could look more commonplace. Yet every time the father-and-son training team of Mark and Norman Casse sees a relatively plain-looking bay horse with a white blaze accomplish this mundane task, it eases their minds.

Team Casse is training last year's 2-year-old champion male, the morning-line favorite for Saturday's Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire. Their horse can be a bit of a nut.

A horse's brain weighs between 1½ and 2 pounds, and it's hard to say what thoughts might sometimes be surging through Classic Empire's.

His behavior in training first became unpredictable almost a year ago. In the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes last summer, a race in which he was favored, Classic Empire pulled a stunt rarely seen on the racetrack, doing a U-turn a few strides into the race and coming to a dead stop after throwing his rider to the Saratoga dirt.

Things were fine last fall, but then in February, Classic Empire's quirks returned. Twice he refused to break off for a timed workout.

"Everyone wants to make him out to be this bad boy, but he's not," Mark Casse said. "That's not him. Now, he does see things that others don't see, but that doesn't make him bad."

It has not just been Classic Empire's mind that has gone awry this year. His body has troubled him as well. Two days after Classic Empire turned in a flat third-place finish in the Feb. 4 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulftream Park, he was dead lame because of a hoof abscess. Recovered from that issue, Classic Empire's back soon began aching, requiring treatment and more time off.

"I'd say out of the last three or four months, we've probably missed 3½ weeks of training with him," Casse said.

And still, off a limited workout pattern and with only one modest race in five months, Classic Empire won the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 15 to cement his role as Derby favorite, a status he gained with a truly high-level win last Nov. 5 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, where he beat the excellent 2-year-old Not This Time by a neck.

"I think I'm riding the most talented horse in the race for sure," jockey Julien Leparoux said. "I think he's the best one."

Classic Empire, a Pioneerof the Nile colt for whom owner John Oxley paid $475,000 at Keeneland's September yearling auction, hardly is the first quirky Derby favorite.

A fairly recent example who springs to mind is Fusaichi Pegasus, who before the Wood Memorial Stakes dug his feet into the Aqueduct dirt and declined to move toward the starting gate. While training during Derby week, he dropped jockey Kent Desormeaux. Trainer Neil Drysdale, though, always contended that Fusaichi Pegasus was merely playful, ebullient, rambunctious and very curious, not some sort of rogue.

Similarly, there is nothing inherently "bad" about Classic Empire. He is a generally kind colt described by his connections as unusually intelligent -- too smart, perhaps, for his own good. He is not difficult to deal with around the barn. His two major quirks are stopping short and refusing to go at all.

Leparoux was injured before the Hopeful, so it was Irad Ortiz who got thrown to the ground. In Leparoux's six rides, Classic Empire has done nothing wrong.

"Once you get him in the gate, he's fine," Leparoux said. "He's very straightforward in a race. I don't know how to explain what he does. He never dropped me, though. Hopefully, that doesn't change."

Florent Geroux, like Leparoux a French-born jockey, did get a taste of Classic Empire's bad habits while working him last summer at Saratoga.

"Once or twice for me, he just put the brakes on, like he did in the Hopeful," said Geroux, who in one instance was pitched to the ground after Classic Empire had broken off for a work. "It's not like he wants to hurt you or anything. He doesn't even go anywhere. After that happened, I just got back on him and worked him."

Assistant trainer Norm Casse has been around Classic Empire as much as anyone. He said it was at Churchill last year, probably in June, where Classic Empire first began acting erratically.

"He sometimes goes out there and refuses to train," Casse said. "Maybe it's the places he's at. He was kind of bad here [at Churchill] at the very beginning last year, but that was more just 2-year-old stuff, really. At Santa Anita, he was fine, at Keeneland he was fine, and at Palm Meadows this winter, he just wasn't happy."

The really odd thing is that Classic Empire did not start off this way at all.

"He was actually a very easy horse to raise," said Steven Nicholson, who, with his wife, Brandi, bred Classic Empire and brought him up at their Silver Fern Farm. "We didn't experience any of the quirkiness that he's shown on the racetrack. Personality-wise, he was tough, but he was very smart in the same way. If you asked him something, you showed him the ropes a little bit, he was good with it."

It was much the same at Mark Casse's farm in Ocala, Florida, where Classic Empire was taken after being purchased as a yearling.

"With him, he always did everything right," said Mitch Downs, a longtime Casse employee who oversees breaking and training at the farm. "He's a smart horse, and he was always a kind horse, too, always very gentle.

"When we first took him to the racetrack, after about three or four days, you could tell by then he was something special. He looked like a 3-year-old, like he already knew what he was doing, bowing his neck. I was talking about this with a guy down here just the other day, that from the time we let him two-minute lick, nobody ever outworked him. A lot of times, a light doesn't come on for three or four months, but he started just going around there looking good, the way he galloped, the way he carried himself."

Downs said he remembers settling in to watch the Hopeful last summer. The field broke from the gate, and Classic Empire pirouetted like a dancer.

"I was watching at home, and I was like, 'Whoa, what just happened?' I was in shock -- that was my first inclination," Downs said.

Mark Casse said he still isn't sure what happened.

"We don't know why he did what he did, but a lot of people don't realize they had to van him off after the race," Casse said. "He couldn't walk. He hit the inside of his sesamoid, and he had a knot the size of a golf ball on the inside of his right front. He was lame, but by the time he got back to the barn 15 minutes later, he was walking better, and 30 minutes later, it was gone.

"I don't know if he hit that and it caused him to stop, or if it was the other way around. Which came first? I don't know."

Months later, the bizarre incident had receded behind wins in the Breeders' Futurity and the BC Juvenile and an Eclipse Award as 2-year-old champion male. And then in February, everything came back to the fore.

Classic Empire was a 1-2 shot to win the Holy Bull, but the Casses already were worried while coming from Palm Meadows to Gulfstream to race. Classic Empire wasn't acting like himself, and in the running, he did not perform like himself either.

In retrospect, the abscess provided a very real excuse for Classic Empire's disappointing showing, but the injury set him on a difficult path just as Classic Empire was supposed to be marching purposefully down the Triple Crown trail.

The abscess popped Feb. 8, and after being fitted with glue-on shoes that he still wears, Classic Empire resumed training at Palm Meadows. Leparoux climbed aboard him one morning to take him out for a breeze, got to the track, and Classic Empire declined to work. It happened a second time, after which, back at the barn, Leparoux put his hands behind the colt's withers as he dismounted in the stall.

"The horse went to his knees, and Julien had to dive off him," Casse said.

Probably as a result of the foot problem, Classic Empire's back had gotten seriously sore. A specialist was called in to treat him. And Casse, running out of options and time, decided to make a bold move. Classic Empire had left Ocala for the racetrack a happy, well-adjusted 2-year-old, so he sent him back to where he had been broken to try to turn around his season.

Classic Empire returned to Winding Oaks Farm, and the man who had first put a bridle on him and given him his earliest lessons, Martin Rivera, began getting on his back.

"I guess we get along pretty good," Rivera said. "The first day back there when I rode him, he tried me a little bit. Nothing bad. He just does things to see what he can get away with. He tried to not go, kind of refused to go. But it was just, like, a one-time deal. From that day to now, he's been great."

Rivera was speaking from the Casse barn at Churchill this week. Rivera and his flashy, fringed red leather chaps have become a regular part of Classic Empire's equipment. Classic Empire breezed twice at Winding Oaks under Rivera with no incident, so Casse sent Rivera along to Oaklawn Park. And there, despite the scattershot schedule, the hiccups, the stops and starts, and a somewhat tricky trip, Classic Empire scored a half-length win. He was back in the Triple Crown game.

Under Rivera at Churchill, and with throngs of onlookers growing daily as the Derby approaches, Classic Empire has been Classy Empire -- no mistakes, no brazen displays of will. He has gone through those regular Thoroughbred paces, the ones that seem so automatic, like a racehorse is supposed to do.

On the whole, his preparation for the race this year has been scattershot, inadequate, and Classic Empire simply might not be up to the task Saturday. But this is a colt with five wins in seven starts, three Grade 1 victories, a colt with whom talent has never been in doubt.

"I've been with Mark over 30 years now," Downs said. "I was raised in Louisville, and I've been to the Derby many, many times. I've always told Mark I'm not coming back until I think we can win it -- and I'll be there at 10 o'clock on Friday."