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Classic Empire could have chance to shine without Belmont headliners

By Ron Flatter  ( 

May 26, 2017 03:55 PM

LAS VEGAS — Definitely no Kentucky Derby winner. Probably no Preakness Stakes winner. Next month’s Belmont Stakes might end up being less the “Test of the Champion” and more the “Test of the n2x.”

Eight probable Belmont starters are still eligible for “n2x” races – the ones that exclude horses that have won more than two races other than a maiden. But the absence of Always Dreaming and Cloud Computing does not preclude a quality race worthy of being a Grade 1 affair worth $1.5 million.

The last time the Derby and Preakness winners did not show up for the Belmont was 2010, when Drosselmeyer came into the stretch running third, overtook pace-setting First Dude and a flattening Game On Dude before holding off Fly Down by three-quarters of a length for a thrilling, 13-to-1 victory.

It is not as if familiar names will not be back for the Belmont. Victimized by traffic in a fourth-place Derby finish and outdueled after helping to set the pace in the Preakness, Classic Empire will try, try again – and probably carry with him the favorite’s role in what may be a full, 16-horse field on June 10 at Belmont Park.

“We are really proud of his Preakness effort,” said Norman Casse, assistant trainer to his father Mark Casse. “He came out of the race in great shape, and we’re excited to get him back to training.”

When the Casses get Classic Empire from his barn in Kentucky to the backstretch on Long Island, N.Y., seems to be the next pesky detail in front of them.

“We’ll have to look into the plane schedule,” Norman Casse said Thursday at Churchill Downs, where Classic Empire was due for a jog Friday. “We have a lot of horses at our Churchill division who will run in stakes races that weekend, so there are some logistical questions we need to figure out first.”

Eight other horses that ran in either the Derby or the Preakness are expected to take on Classic Empire, including Lookin At Lee, the only other colt that also figures to run in all three Triple Crown races after finishing second in Kentucky and fourth at Baltimore.

Lookin At Lee’s trainer Steve Asmussen said that it only makes sense for quality horses to run back in quality races. “These races don’t necessarily adjust who they are as much as lighter-raced horses,” he said. “You’re looking at horses that traveled at 2 and ran at as high as level as we have, so you’re not surprised.”

Senior Investment is the only other potential Belmont horse to have hit the board in either of the first two classics. The Lexington Stakes winner got to be more than a handful to control before the Preakness, but he eventually settled down and made a big close to finish third with jockey Channing Hill aboard.

“He showed me he could compete against these kind and has continued to improve,” Senior Investment’s trainer Kenny McPeek said. “He’s such a big horse. It was pretty obvious he was going to need time to develop, so it’s not a big surprise that he’s come along. A mile-and-a-half at the Belmont is going to be really up his alley.”

Such is apparently not the case for Cloud Computing. Trainer Chad Brown has consistently said he is not sure that his Preakness winner can get the extra 550 yards required in the Belmont, but he has yet to formally rule it out. Brown had the same qualms about Timeline, which he ruled out two weeks ago after winning the Peter Pan Stakes, the traditional prep for the Belmont.

Instead it appears that Brown will go into the final classic with Twisted Tom, a big, pace-stalking gelding that won last month’s Federico Tesio Stakes at Laurel Park in Maryland. He has won all three of his races since Brown took him off the turf this year.

“He’s a long-winded, hard-trying horse that obviously showed he has a tremendous amount of stamina and will to win,” Brown said.

Because Twisted Tom was not nominated for the Triple Crown, a $150,000 entry supplement will have to be paid by his owner Gary Biszantz, the co-founder of the Cobra brand of golf equipment.

The most curious of the new Triple Crown shooters will be the Japanese colt Epicharis, a grandson of 1989 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Sunday Silence. He was committed right away to the Belmont after his front-running, second-place finish in the UAE Derby in late March at Dubai. Epicharis was clocked at 1:05.20 over a five-furlong, uphill workout on a wood-chip course Wednesday in Japan, according to his trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara.

“He looks fine, and he moved sharply,” Hagiwara told the New York Racing Association. “Considering the long (24-hour) trip to Belmont via Anchorage and Chicago, I will give him one more timed work in Japan at the same course on Sunday, and the last one will be at Belmont on Tuesday or Wednesday the week of the race.”

This marks the third straight year that the UAE Derby has produced a Belmont entry; the South African horse Mubtaahij finished fourth two years ago before the Japanese colt Lani ran third last year. Not only is he competing for the $800,000 first-place prize, but Epicharis could also earn a $1 million bonus set aside for any Japanese-trained horse that wins the Belmont.

“Epicharis ran well at the UAE Derby and proved himself deserving of the Triple Crown challenge,” Hagiwara said. “He is bred to stay, and the way he races I believe 1½ miles at Belmont suits him.”

Following are the possibilities for the Belmont Stakes, as first reported by the Daily Racing Form, with each horse’s last race included:

Classic Empire – 2nd, Preakness

Conquest Mo Money – 7th, Preakness

Epicharis – 2nd, UAE Derby

Gormley – 9th, Kentucky Derby

Hollywood Handsom – 1st, allowance at Churchill Downs

Irap – 18th, Kentucky Derby

Irish War Cry – 10th, Kentucky Derby

J Boys Echo – 15th, Kentucky Derby

Lookin At Lee – 4th, Preakness

Meantime – 2nd, Peter Pan

Multiplier – 6th, Preakness

Patch – 14th, Kentucky Derby

Senior Investment – 3rd, Preakness

Tapwrit – 6th, Kentucky Derby

True Timber – 3rd, Sir Barton

Twisted Tom – 1st, Federico Tesio

Gold Cup at Santa Anita highlights weekend

  • Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming was definitely ruled out of the Belmont Stakes, according to minority owner Terry Finley of West Point Throughbreds. He said that trainer Todd Pletcher made the decision after talking with majority partners Vinnie Viola and Anthony Bonomo. “I think they just want to take a deep breath with him,” Finley toldBlood-Horse. “We take a pause here and regroup.” Finley said the Grade 1 Travers in late August at Saratoga is the next big target for Always Dreaming.
  • Seven-time graded-stakes winner Midnight Storm is the 5-2 morning-line favorite to win Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Gold Cup, the former Hollywood Park fixture now being run at Santa Anita. The 6-year-old horse sired by Pioneerof The Nile won the San Pasqual before finishing second in the Santa Anita Handicap and third last month in the Oaklawn Handicap. Jockey Flavien Prat will ride Midnight Storm for trainer Phil D’Amato. Eight other older horses are also in the 1¼-mile dirt race that has a post time of 7:39 p.m. EDT Saturday.
  • Former Breeders’ Cup winner Lady Eli is the 4-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Gamely Stakes for fillies and mares on the turf at Santa Anita. The 5-year-old trained by Chad Brown had won her first six races, including the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. But she developed laminitis after stepping on a nail at Belmont Park in 2015 and was off the racetrack for a year. Lady Eli has since won once and also suffered three narrow defeats, including a nose loss to Queen’s Trust in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Post time for the Gamely is 6:03 p.m. EDT Saturday.
  • Thunder Snow, the UAE Derby winner that infamously impersonated a rodeo bronco coming out of the gate in the Kentucky Derby, will be back on the track Saturday in Europe, a 14-1 fourth choice among the six 3-year-olds racing a mile in the Group 1 Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh. The undefeated Churchill is the 4-11 favorite to maintain his form as the best 3-year-old in Europe. Owned by Coolmore, Churchill made his 2017 debut with a one-length win this month in the English 2,000 Guineas. The Irish Guineas starts at 11:10 a.m. EDT Saturday.
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