Classic Empire has recovered nicely from his distressing race at the Kentucky Derby — and so have his handlers.
After being bumped and jostled early at Churchill Downs, Classic Empire finished a disappointing fourth. If that wasn't bad enough, the bay colt emerged from the race with an inflamed right eye.
Now healthy and charging through his workouts, Classic Empire appears poised for a bounce-back performance Saturday in the Preakness.
"Everything about him is perfect. Truthfully, I think he's doing better than ever," said Norman Casse, son and chief assistant to trainer Mark Casse. "All signs show that he's going to run a really good race."
Classic Empire ran a heck of race in the Derby, but the poor start provided him with too much of a deficit to make up against Always Dreaming, who sloshed through the mud to victory.
Starting in the No. 14 post, Classic Empire was a victim of a chain-reaction collision that began when Irish War Cry veered left into McCraken. Five horses were involved, none of which finished in the money.
Casse watched on TV in the paddock as the horrific event unfolded.
"In a race like the Derby, it's so paramount to have a good position going into the first turn," Casse said. "If you don't, you do things you don't want to do."
With no other options, jockey Julien Leparoux took Classic Empire wide on the second turn in an effort to get back in the race. The horse rallied from 13th place to sixth in the stretch but couldn't complete the comeback.
"He ran a great race to finish fourth and never quit on me," Leparoux said. "Hopefully we get a cleaner trip at Pimlico."
Speaking Tuesday outside the Pimlico Stakes Barn, Casse insisted the team has moved on.
"The Derby is a race we always want to win. It's No. 1 on our bucket list," Casse said. "But we haven't really dwelled on it. We know our horse ran well and that there were other big races that go after, and this was the first one on the list, obviously. That's all it's been about."
Classic Empire was an early favorite at the Derby, coming in with five wins in seven career races. He has more than $2.2 million in career earnings, and Casse expects to significantly increase that total this weekend.
For one thing, it won't be as crowded in the starting gate.
"It's always a fairer race. You don't have 20 horses, you don't have a bunch of horses that don't belong in the race," Casse said. "Things get sorted out a little bit more here at the Preakness."
At the Derby, Todd Pletcher, trainer of Always Dreaming, conceded that "the start of the race compromised a number of horses."
In the Preakness, Casse envisions a duel worthy of a Triple Crown event.
"What we're hoping for," he said, "is that they both get fair trips, they both are eyeing each other at the quarter-pole and they can sort it out down the lane."