In the midst of a late morning in late September at Mark Casse’s barn at Saratoga Race Course, the small string left behind in upstate New York with upcoming engagements at various venues relaxed while the barn staff went through their final chores for the day.
Norm Casse, son and lead assistant to his father, sat quietly in a golf cart parked just outside the shedrow of the barn on the far turn of Saratoga’s main track. The barn sits in an area that’s fairly busy during the season but on this day, more than two weeks after the final race of the 2016 meet was run, all was still.
A few days prior Tepin, the barn star and undoubtedly one of the most successful horses in North America the last two seasons, won the Woodbine Mile to add to the spoils of a career-year for the barn. Less than a dozen stalls in the barn that morning were occupied, but it was a murderers row of talent. So good that the question needed to be asked.
“Which one has the best chance to win a Breeders’ Cup race?”
Norm Casse, ever diplomatic but also free to not be too shy thanks in huge part to the talent of Tepin, settled on the bay mare in the midst of a nosh-down of her favorite late-morning sweet-potato treat. Casse later talked about the other horses in the shedrow, who would soon depart for Louisville and Churchill Downs, where they’d complete the final preparations for the Breeders’ Cup in early November in California.
“The difference between Palm Meadows and here is there I’ll have about 90 horses and here I only have about nine,” Casse said, commenting on training the group amidst the relaxed atmosphere of the Saratoga post-season versus the hustle of the start of the year in South Florida. “Half of them are Grade 1 winners. There’s literally five Grade 1 winners here. Tepin, Catch A Glimpse, World Approval, Noble Bird and Pretty City Dancer.
“We also have Keep Quiet, who was second in a Grade 2 and is going to the Breeders’ Cup, and a filly who broke her maiden impressively at the end of the meet named La Coronel, who is running in a stakes at Keeneland and possibly going to the Breeders’ Cup. It’s legit horses that are here, there are no slouches. This is definitely the A team.”
One member of that “A team” that he didn’t mention at that moment, but did later, was Classic Empire.
Classic Empire, who starts his 2017 season in Saturday’s Grade 2 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, did win at the Breeders’ Cup last year. He won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a few weeks after the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, and subsequently inherits the role as the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
Classic Empire was a bit of an unknown before the Breeders’ Futurity and Juvenile, however, after making an ignominious debut on the big stage in the Grade 1 Hopeful on Saratoga’s closing-day card. Described by his trainer as a “bit of a bad boy,” Classic Empire dropped jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. shortly after the break in the Hopeful and ran around the track loose before being caught by outriders in what is his only career defeat.
Norm Casse and his team went to work on Classic Empire immediately, taking the Pioneerof The Nile colt to the starting gate frequently during the remainder of his stay in Saratoga and it paid off in the Breeders’ Futurity and Breeders’ Cup. Blinkers were added before the Breeders’ Futurity and he’ll continue to wear them in the $350,000 Holy Bull, which offers 10 points to the winner toward a spot in the Derby starting gate.
“This horse looks at everything and he doesn’t just look, he reacts,” Norm Casse said. “He sees something, he stops. This horse benefits from the blinkers.”
Classic Empire, who will face a strong field in the Holy Bull that also includes multiple graded stakes winner Gunnevera and unbeaten Fact Finding from the Todd Pletcher barn, also benefits from his training.
Norm Casse said he “trains like an older stakes horse,” and although the Holy Bull is just a steppingstone toward what Mark Casse and owner John Oxley hope yields a victory the first Saturday in May, Classic Empire should be formidable in one of three serious preps around the country Saturday.
The Holy Bull is expected to be the first of three starts for Classic Empire before the Derby, a decision that eschews recent history just a bit. Eight of the last 10 Derby winners, including Nyquist last year and American Pharoah in 2015, made just two starts before the Derby.
Casse was quoted earlier this week he’d take a page from the Allen Jerkens training book with Classic Empire and run him if he’s good, a style employed by the legendary Hall of Famer during his long career. None of Casse’s previous three Derby starters – Seaside Retreat, Prospective and Danzig Moon – made only two starts. Danzig Moon fared the best of that trio, finishing fifth to American Pharoah in 2015 after making three preps.
Gunnevera, winner of the Grade 2 Saratoga Special and Grade 3 Delta Downs Jackpot, is the 9-2 second choice behind the 3-5 favorite Classic Empire for Gulfstream’s first serious Derby prep of the year. The son of Dialed In also makes his 2017 debut in the Holy Bull for trainer Antonio Sano, who was kidnapped for more than a month and escaped political unrest in his native Venezuela before embarking on a training career in the U.S.
Fact Finding comes into the Holy Bull with a 3-for-3 record and victories at Saratoga in August, Keeneland in October and Gulfstream in December. The Gulfstream win came in the Smooth Air Stakes, a 7-length score in the slop going 1 mile. He’s not the only undefeated colt in the race, as Graham Motion sends out the New Jersey-bred Curlin colt Irish War Cry for owner-breeder Isabelle de Tomaso. Irish War Cry won the Marylander Stakes on Laurel Park’s New Year’s Even program to run his record to 2-for-2.
Others entered in the Holy Bull are Perro Rojo, Talk Logistics, Shamsaan, Cavil and Fire For Effect.