By Ben Massam
John Oxley’s reigning juvenile champion Classic Empire (Pioneerof the Nile) posted an important workout toward a potential start in the Apr. 8 GII Blue Grass S. at Keeneland Sunday morning at Palm Meadows, breezing four furlongs in :48.95 (3/24) in company with MGSW & GISP Airoforce (Colonel John). Trainer Mark Casse, speaking over the phone Sunday afternoon, said the colt has seemingly moved past a foot abscess and a back issue that held up his training for much of February and early March.
“He’s been doing extremely well since we had the doctor come and look at him and work on his back,” Casse explained. “He’s a happy horse right now and today, we were just looking for something to get him back on track. He worked with Airoforce and it went extremely well. We’re excited.”
Classic Empire emerged from a head-scratching third-place finish as the heavy favorite in the Feb. 4 GII Holy Bull S. with a foot abscess and was more recently forced to miss a workout after showing signs of discomfort Mar. 3. Casse said that if he continues to rebound in satisfactory fashion, Classic Empire will make his next start at Keeneland–where he annexed the GI Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity last autumn.
“If we’re going to make the [May 6 GI] Kentucky Derby, it’s going to be through the Blue Grass,” Casse added. “We feel like we still have three more works with him, as long as he continues to do well. We’re not going to push it–if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, we know we have a really good horse. But we’re not going to sacrifice him just to make the Blue Grass or the Derby. But right now, if things continue down the path that he’s on, we’re happy and we’ll keep going forward.”
Casse–named as a first-time Hall of Fame finalist earlier this week–suggested that both Classic Empire and Robert Masterson’s two-time champion Tepin (Bernstein) will move forward upon their return to cooler weather in Kentucky this spring. Tepin has not worked since recovering from a minor bout with colic in early February, but has trained steadily at Palm Meadows in recent weeks.
“We haven’t really decided when we’re going to breeze her,” Casse commented. “Palm Meadows has been fairly deep this year, and she does not care for a deeper racetrack. We’ve been just kind of going along with her. She thrives at Churchill Downs. It’s amazing how well she does there. We see some similarities to her now to what we saw in Saratoga–it’s a little warmer, it’s a deeper racetrack. Mr. Masterson has told us to wait until she’s ready to go and she’s happy.”
As for long-term plans, Casse noted that Tepin’s 2017 season will likely follow a different course than her 2015 and 2016 championship campaigns. Most notably, plans for a potential return to Royal Ascot to defend her title in the G1 Queen Anne S. in June remain up in the air.
“She’s six years old now, and we’re not looking for as big of a campaign out of her as we’ve had in the past,” the trainer concluded. “If all goes well, it’s going to be three or four races, with the Breeders’ Cup being her final race.”