Clas­sic Em­pire re­mains on top

Daily Racing Form National Digital Edition - - News - By Jay Priv­man

From the time the horses crossed the wire in the Breed­ers’ Cup Ju­ve­nile un­til the Holy Bull was run on Feb. 4, Clas­sic Em­pire, last year’s cham­pion 2-year-old male, was the ac­knowl­edged fa­vorite for the Ken­tucky Derby on May 6. But his third-place fin­ish in the Holy Bull has left the Derby scene as muddy and roil­ing as the Ohio River af­ter a spring­time storm, with the likes of Ir­ish War Cry and McCraken as­cend­ing in the stand­ings.

Yet for the in­au­gu­ral Derby Watch top 20, Clas­sic Em­pire re­mains the fa­vorite on the Derby fu­ture line pro­duced by Mike Watch­maker, Daily Rac­ing Form’s na­tional hand­i­cap­per. Clas­sic Em­pire’s ter­rific 2-year-old form, com­bined with a foot is­sue that came to the fore days af­ter the Holy Bull, com­bined to keep him as the fa­vorite – for now.

Clas­sic Em­pire is 5-1, with the un­beaten McCraken at 6-1, and Ir­ish War Cry – the Holy Bull win­ner – at 8-1. There is the very real pos­si­bil­ity that Clas­sic Em­pire and Ir­ish War Cry will meet again in the Grade 2, $400,000 Foun­tain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 4.

“We’re flirt­ing with the Foun­tain of Youth,” Mark Casse, the trainer of Clas­sic Em­pire, said ear­lier this week. “If not that, I don’t know what we’d do. He’ll breeze this week­end or early next week and then we’ll know a lit­tle more.”

Casse be­lieves gravel that worked its way out of Clas­sic Em­pire’s right front foot a cou­ple of days af­ter the Holy Bull was re­spon­si­ble for the colt’s per­for­mance. He was washy be­fore the race and re­luc­tant to load.

“Look­ing back, things make more sense,” Casse said. “I’m not one for ex­cuses, but that’s a pretty good one.”

Casse said Clas­sic Em­pire was out of sorts from the time he was loaded onto the van to make the 45-minute drive from the Palm Mead­ows train­ing cen­ter to Gulfstream Park the day of the race. To elim­i­nate ship­ping prob­lems as be­ing one of the is­sues in the Foun­tain of Youth, Casse said Clas­sic Em­pire would be sent to Gulfstream a few days in front of the race.

“He’s shipped ev­ery­where and it’s never been a prob­lem, but he lost it on the van, so, yes, we’ll ship early,” Casse said.

Clas­sic Em­pire has had be­hav­ioral prob­lems. Re­call that he took a right turn leav­ing the gate in the Hope­ful Stakes last sum­mer at Saratoga and dropped jockey Irad Or­tiz Jr., who was sub­bing that day for the in­jured Julien Leparoux, his reg­u­lar rider. “He’s a hand­ful,” Casse said. The Foun­tain of Youth has the po­ten­tial to be the best race of the prep sea­son to date this year. In ad­di­tion to Clas­sic Em­pire and Ir­ish War Cry, oth­ers point­ing to the race in­clude Gun­n­ev­era, the Holy Bull run­ner-up; and Three Rules, se­cond in the Swale Stakes. All four are mem­bers of the Derby Watch top 20.

Those four all are on a sched­ule that would give them three preps this year be­fore the Ken­tucky Derby. McCraken is on a sim­i­lar sched­ule. He is slated to re­turn to Tampa Bay Downs, where he won the Sam F. Davis last Satur­day, for the Grade 2, $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby on March 11.

Ian Wilkes, the trainer of McCraken, has been an in­te­gral part of two prior Derby win­ners. He was the ex­er­cise rider of Un­bri­dled and the as­sis­tant trainer of Street Sense, both trained by Carl Nafzger. Street Sense had just two preps be­fore the Derby in 2007. Wilkes said McCraken would ben­e­fit by hav­ing an ex­tra race, in part be­cause his 2-year-old cam­paign was less ex­ten­sive than that of Street Sense.

“Street Sense raced five times as a 2-year-old, so he didn’t need as much be­fore Derby,” Wilkes said ear­lier this year. “McCraken raced three times at 2.”

Street Sense made his first start at 3 in the Tampa Bay Derby. Wilkes chose the Tampa route for McCraken in part be­cause he be­lieves McCraken’s clos­ing style is ill-suited to Gulfstream. Wilkes was con­cerned McCraken would have to be taken out of his com­fort level to stay closer to the front over that track. He said he didn’t want to “gut the horse” in his first race back.

The bril­liant filly Unique Bella likely would be con­sid­ered one of the Derby fa­vorites if she were headed in that di­rec­tion, but trainer Jerry Hol­len­dor­fer said he doesn’t want to go that route, and said he’s get­ting no pres­sure to run in the Derby from her owner, the Don Al­berto Sta­ble of Lil­iana So­lari and her son Car­los Heller. But Unique Bella was nom­i­nated for $600 to the Triple Crown, whereas last year Hol­len­dor­fer’s filly Song­bird – owned by Rick Porter – wasn’t even nom­i­nated.

“I just cov­ered my bases this year,” Hol­len­dor­fer said. “The dif­fer­ence last year was that Mr. Porter specif­i­cally said not to nom­i­nate.”

BAR­BARA D. LIV­INGSTON

Clas­sic Em­pire fin­ished third in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream, but with a plau­si­ble ex­cuse.

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