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The race must go on, even without Classic Empire

By Ron Flatter  ( 

June 7, 2017 01:51 PM

LAS VEGAS--The racing office at Belmont Park did not need to get this sick call. Not with only three days left until its showcase event.

Because of an abscess discovered Wednesday morning in his troublesome, right-front foot, 2-1 Vegas favorite Classic Empire is out of Saturday’s $1.5 million Belmont Stakes on Long Island, New York. It is the third time since 2012 that the leading 3-year-old male in the country at the time has been withdrawn from the Triple Crown finale for health reasons.

“The foot that has given him issues before flared up,” Classic Empire’s trainer Mark Casse said, saying it is a recurrence of the colt’s trouble in February. “He couldn’t put it down. We’re trying to get (the abscess) to break open. As soon as that happens he’ll have instant relief. But we are not going into the Belmont off something like that.”

Without Classic Empire, without Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming and without Preakness winner Cloud Computing, the Belmont is left with Irish War Cry as a shaky, new 7-2 favorite on the morning line and 3-1 at Westgate Las Vegas. The 10th-place finisher in the Derby was drawn Wednesday afternoon into gate 7 of the dozen 3-year-olds left in the race – and was very nearly excluded himself.

“This was not my original plan,” Irish War Cry’s trainer Graham Motion said after the draw at New York’s Rockefeller Center. “After the Derby when he ran so disappointingly I wanted to go home and just forget about the Triple Crown, which is what the Derby does to you when you don’t run well. But he had a really good couple of weeks, he breezed well last weekend, and I felt he needed to be here.”

More memorable than Irish War Cry’s finish at Churchill Downs was his infamous start. Jockey Rajiv Maragh veered him in from the outside auxiliary gate and started the chain reaction that bottlenecked Classic Empire among others. All the jostling may have emptied his tank as he tired at the end of the Derby.

“I just want Irish War Cry to be able to show what he’s made of with his best race,” Maragh said Wednesday. “If it’s good enough he’ll win.”

Motion thinks that Irish War Cry’s breeding could be a sign that he can last the Belmont’s 1½ miles, the longest Grade 1 dirt race in North America. The colt was sired by Curlin, a two-time Horse of the Year that finished a close second in the 2007 Belmont and also fathered the race’s 2013 winner Palace Malice.

“The fact that he is by Curlin really encourages me,” Motion said. “The Curlins have tended to handle it. It’s a bit of an unknown for all of us, but I think it’s within his scope as long as things play out well for him.”

Front-running Japanese import Epicharis drew post 11 and is the second favorite at 4-1 on the morning line and 7-2 at Westgate. If he were to win he would claim not only the $800,000 first-place money but also a $1 million bonus set aside for any horse based in Japan that comes over and wins the Belmont.

Deep-closing Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee, the fourth-place finisher in the Preakness, will start from gate 6 next to Irish War Cry and is 5-1 on the morning line and 9-2 at Westgate. Two more Derby also-rans – Tapwrit and Gormley – are the only other horses at odds shorter than 10-1.

Their odds would have been longer if not for Classic Empire’s misfortune. It follows similar exits by 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another – scratched on Belmont eve because of tendinitis – and 2016 Derby winner Nyquist – sidelined by a spiked white-cell count after a third-place finish in the Preakness.

Both I’ll Have Another and Nyquist were trained by Doug O’Neill, who was twice denied his first chance to lead a horse into the Belmont. The same goes for Casse.

“It’s unfortunate,” assistant Norman Casse, the trainer’s son, wrote on Twitter. “We still have a lot of races to look forward to.” The Casses said that Classic Empire may now be aimed to the $1 million Haskell Invitational on the Jersey Shore in late July, the same race American Pharoah won two years ago in his encore to the Triple Crown.

Following is the full field for the Belmont Stakes, which has a listed post time of 6:47 p.m. EDT Saturday.


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