‘If they beat us, they beat us’

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Norm Casse stood at the back of the Aristides Lounge at Churchill Downs, flanked by a small group of reporters and watched as the posts were randomly picked for the participants in Saturday’s 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby.

One by one they were assigned, the silks of the owners of the horses placed on a large board the front of the room, No. 9 went first, then 2, then 16 and on and on.

Only a few posts remained late in the proceedings, one of which was the dreaded No. 1 slot, widely considered the death knell to even the most optimistic of Derby dreams. That characterization isn’t that far off; as the No. 1 post hasn’t been the starting spot for a Derby winner since 1986. If you’re scoring at home – and who isn’t this time of year, it’s Derby Week after all – that’s 30 straight losers to come from the rail.

Casse wasn’t overly tense as he watched, but he wasn’t exactly loose either. He fidgeted a bit, shifting his weight from time to time and moving around in the somewhat tight quarters. His demeanor changed significantly when the 15th name and post was read, the No. 1 going to the longshot Lookin At Lee.

“We’re good,” Casse said, not relishing in anyone’s misfortune at drawing the rail but certainly relieved that Classic Empire didn’t wind up in the spot that starts at such a strange angle at the end of the far turn and the start of the final stretch that many could argue is unfair in a full field of 20. Four picks later Classic Empire’s name was read with post No. 14, which doesn’t carry nearly the same stigma despite not producing a winner since Carry Back in 1961.

A few minutes later before being wrangled off to do an interview with NBC’s Laffit Pincay III, Casse’s father Mark, who trains Classic Empire for John Oxley, said the same thing without saying the same thing and all seemed right in the camp of the 2017 Kentucky Derby favorite.

“Given the last four or five choices I was real happy,” Mark Casse said. “I could just see getting the 1 hole. The 1 hole could be disastrous. I was already ready to say, ‘hey look, we’ve already overcome everything else why not this? Why make it easy?’ ”

Classic Empire, who turned in another strong gallop during the special training time for Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks runners just after 8:30 on a partly sunny typical spring morning Wednesday, hasn’t made it easy on his connections this year.

The winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity last year to lock up champion 2-year-old male honors earned the nickname “Racing’s Bad Boy,” by Norm Casse and other members of Casse Racing. He disappointed in his 2017 debut, finishing third behind fellow Derby entrants Irish War Cry and Gunnevera in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Then the real adventure started.

Classic Empire, who dropped his rider after the start of the Hopeful Stakes last summer at Saratoga and ran around the track loose, emerged from the Holy Bull with an abscess in his right front foot. That kept him out of the Fountain of Youth Stakes in early March, a race won by Gunnevera.

Classic Empire eventually went back into serious training but twice refused to break off for a serious workout, including a well-documented incident less than three weeks before his scheduled and subsequently scrapped start in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Those antics forced Team Casse to send Classic Empire to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala to train and there he reunited with exercise rider Martin Rivera. He breezed four times at Winding Oaks before shipping to Oaklawn Park for the Arkansas Derby April 15, a week after the Blue Grass. Classic Empire turned in a professional effort in the Arkansas Derby, winning by a half-length from Conquest Mo Money and Lookin At Lee, to wrest back his favorite’s role for the Kentucky Derby.

So now the latest chapter in Classic Empire’s odyssey will begin from post No. 14 Saturday in Louisville. As mentioned earlier it’s not the greatest post, just a 2-for-62 record and no wins since JFK was in the White House. Impeachment finished third from that spot in 2000 and Mohaymen checked in fourth from post No. 14 last year, so there’s at least some recent history in Classic Empire’s corner.

Mark Casse also likes the way the other potential speed horses in the race drew in relation to Classic Empire and State Of Honor, runner-up to Always Dreaming in the Florida Derby that he also trains for owner Conrad Farms. State Of Honor drew post No. 6, just outside of Always Dreaming. Irish War Cry, who won the Holy Bull on the lead and raced close to the pace winning the Wood Memorial, drew No. 17 while another proven front-runner in Santa Anita Derby winner Gormley drew No. 18.

“It works out nice because I think Always Dreaming is going to be right there,” Casse said. “If Always Dreaming wants to go to the lead that’s fine, if he doesn’t State Of Honor can take that and Classic Empire can have an eye on both of them. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Irish War Cry. McCraken’s going to drop back. Irish War Cry’s may go to go for it, or he may be stuck outside Classic Empire. Classic Empire has as much speed if he needs to use it. That was good.

“He couldn’t be in a better place right now, but we still have three days. It’s been a crazy road, but we’re right where we want to be. Right now if they beat us, they beat us. He’s extremely fast. You just have to look at the Breeders’ Cup. He’s fast. If they don’t go real fast he may be on the lead, it wouldn’t be impossible.”