BALTIMORE — Trainer Mark Casse is not one to back down from a fight. And neither it seems is Classic Empire.
Alert in a shed-row walk and even pausing to look for a hand-out peppermint Sunday morning at Pimlico, Classic Empire did not look like a colt that was defeated in the Preakness Stakes on Saturday afternoon. After he finished second by a head to 13-1 long shot Cloud Computing, he looked ready and raring to go again.
Casse said, yes, the Belmont Stakes is a possibility.
“I would have said before the Preakness that there’d be no shot that we would run in the Belmont,” Casse said Sunday morning. “But given the way he ran yesterday, the way he felt last night, the way he feels this morning, you never know. A definite maybe.”
But don’t presume that it is automatic that Classic Empire will get a rematch in 20 days with the Preakness winner – or the Kentucky Derby winner.
Trainer Todd Pletcher said 6-5 favorite Always Dreaming looked fine after his eighth-place disappointment, but he did not sound eager to put the Derby champ in the Belmont Stakes.
“When I spoke to the ownership after the race we all decided that we wouldn’t make any decisions until we got him home and evaluated how he’s doing,” Pletcher said just before leaving for New York. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to make those types of decisions right after a race. We’ll process it for a little while.”
Cloud Computing’s trainer Chad Brown wondered aloud Saturday night whether his big colt could cover the 1½ miles of the Belmont Stakes. By Sunday he sounded at least a little more open to the idea.
“We haven’t ruled it out,” Brown said from New York, where he quickly returned to work out more of his stable Sunday morning. “We’re just going to evaluate the horse this week and by next weekend we may have a decision.”
“We’d like to see it, but only if it’s the right thing for the horse,” co-owner Bill Lawrence said minutes after Cloud Computing became the first Preakness winner in eight years that had skipped the Derby. “There’s plenty of big races ahead. We trust Chad and feel very confident in him. If he says go, we’ll go. If he says no, we’re not going to go.”
After his fourth-place finish in the Derby and his near-miss Saturday, Classic Empire figures to be one of only two horses that will get a shot at all three Triple Crown races. Lookin At Lee, fourth Saturday after finishing second in the Derby, is definitely headed to the Belmont, according to trainer Steve Asmussen.
Whether Classic Empire will be in a speed duel on the lead again next month as he was Saturday with Always Dreaming is another matter. Not that Casse saw anything wrong with that – not with fractions of 23.16, 46.81 and 1:11.00 through the first six furlongs.
“I don’t think the pace was that quick,” Casse said. “Honestly, what happened is that Always Dreaming kind of called it a day a little too early for us. I think about the half-mile pole we’re sitting there with a lot of horse and ready to pounce, and all at once our competition went away.”
It was a dramatic retreat for Always Dreaming. In the last 150 yards before turning into the stretch he went from leading by a head to trailing by 8½ lengths. By the end of the race he was 14 lengths behind, finishing eighth.
“I kind of process through it and say what would I have done differently if I could?” Pletcher said, “I don’t know if there’s anything I could have changed.”
Neither Pletcher nor Casse bought into the notion that the early speed duel Saturday was suicidal. Pletcher said that if it had been, Classic Empire would not have finished a close second. But Always Dreaming’s rapid regression left Classic Empire alone to try and protect a three-length lead from Cloud Computing. Reigning four-time jockey of the year Javier Castellano stalked the lead in third place most of the way and had Cloud Computing pounce after Classic Empire was left on his own in the stretch.
“It’s tough for any horse to find himself on the lead and to keep running and keep motivated,” said Casse, who quickly dismissed the idea that the short, two-week turnaround from the Derby was a factor. “It had nothing to do with two weeks. This horse was better for the Kentucky Derby than he was for the Arkansas Derby. He was better for the Preakness than he was for the Kentucky Derby. He thrives on it.”
Classic Empire did finish strongly enough to keep late-closing long shot Senior Investment at bay in third. At 31-1, he showed trainer Kenny McPeek enough that he will point the Lexington Stakes winner toward the Belmont.
“He’s got a legitimate chance to win the Belmont,” Senior Investment’s jockey Channing Hill said. “See you in New York.”
The most surprising aspect of Saturday’s early speed duel was that it was not a three-headed affair. Expected to set the pace, Conquest Mo Money was sent off at odds of 10-1. Then he dawdled coming out of the outside post and was held back by first-time Preakness jockey Jorge Carreño. On his way to a seventh-place finish it was the first time in six career races that the colt sired by Uncle Mo had not been on the lead or within a length of it at any posted call.
“I thought he would be more in the race, but it was a little too fast for him,” said trainer Miguel Hernández, who was also in his first Preakness. “My rider tried to put him in the race, but it didn’t work out.”
Hernández said that Conquest Mo Money could be back for the Belmont. That stood to reason after owners Tom and Sandy McKenna paid a one-time, $150,000 to supplement him into the Preakness and the Belmont after they had chosen not to nominate him earlier for the Triple Crown series.
After Lookin At Lee had trouble at the start and took a wide trip to close from last place to finish fourth at 9-1 Saturday, trainer Steve Asmussen was emphatic about taking him to Belmont – and a sixth matchup with Classic Empire (Lookin At Lee trails the head-to-head 4-1).
“My opinion is that those are horses with established 2-year-old form,” said Asmussen, who won last year’s Belmont with the deep-closing Creator. “They’ve been able to maintain themselves physically. That puts them in a different position than horses who have not consistently run on that stage. The credit goes to these horses.”
At odds of 19-1, Multiplier used a rail trip to finish sixth Saturday, and it sounds like he will be aimed for Belmont Park. “He seems fine, but it looked like he needed more ground,” trainer Brendan Walsh said. Then he referred to the Belmont when he said “there’s a race for that down the road.”
One new Belmont shooter has been confirmed for some time – Epicharis. The Japanese colt finished second in the UAE Derby in March before his connections decided against running him in the Kentucky Derby. “He proved himself worthy of the Triple Crown challenge,” trainer Kiyoshi Hagiwara told the New York Racing Association early this month. Epicharis was sired by Gold Allure. His grandsire Sunday Silence won the Derby and Preakness in 1989 before becoming Japan’s most dominant breeding stallion from 1995 to 2008.
Betting hindsight on the Preakness
My stubbornness in following statistical form over that of the horse cost me at the betting window Saturday.
After seeing how he used his speed and dominant size to overcome a bad start to finish third in last month’s Wood Memorial, I genuinely liked Cloud Computing to hit the board. But despite that impressive eye test, I was adamant that he would not win the Preakness, because only three of the previous 33 winners had been new shooters like him.
I was just as adamant that Classic Empire would win the race, but I still allowed myself to cave just a little, pairing him with Always Dreaming on the top of my exacta box, and then hitting “all” underneath to finish second. That got me my biggest win of the day, such as it was. The exacta paid off at 48-to-1, but because my box was technically 18 bets, I was only getting back $2.67 on the dollar. Still I put enough on it to cover my earlier losses on the pick-3 and pick-4.
Where my adamant stand against new shooters really cost me, though, was with the rolling double. I had the Dixie Stakes winner World Approval as one of five horses on the front end. If I had simply added Cloud Computing to the back end using the same logic that compelled me to include Always Dreaming with Classic Empire, I would have hit the 43-to-1 double. The multiple bets would have knocked that down to about 17-to-2, but that would have been better than trashing the ticket I did use at two-thirds what I should have invested.
If I had been really smart – a big “if” – then I would have used my hit-“all” strategy in a trifecta box, boxing Cloud Computing, Classic Empire and Always Dreaming in the top two and hitting “all” for third. The winning $2 trifecta ticket paid $2,194.60 on Saturday – not bad for what would have been an investment of $96.