April 22, 2024

Kentucky Derby contenders Classic Empire, McCraken resume breezing

Classic Empire clinching the divisional championship in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita (Benoit Photo)

Champion Classic Empire and undefeated McCraken, both leading Kentucky Derby (G1) contenders who encountered recent setbacks, hope to put all of that behind them as they returned to the worktab at Palm Meadows this weekend.

Classic Empire hadn’t worked since January 28, when he posted his final move ahead of the February 4 Holy Bull (G2). A flat third as the 1-2 favorite in that sophomore bow, the Mark Casse trainee was subsequently found to have a foot abscess. Once he got over that, Classic Empire was limbering up to breeze March 3, but refused and went back to the barn with soreness in his back. That issue has now apparently been resolved.

The unanimous Eclipse Award winner at last was ready, willing, and able to turn in a work Sunday morning. He covered a half-mile at Palm Meadows in :48.95, and Norman Casse reported via Twitter that he finished five in 1:01 3/5.

“Classic Empire stupendous today – :48.4, 1:01.3,” the trainer’s son and assistant tweeted.

“This was a very important work today,” Norman Casse told Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch. “We had to get this done, and I thought he looked as good as he’s ever looked. He was moving effortlessly. It was his first important step moving forward. We can’t have any more hiccups.”

If things go according to plan, Classic Empire is expected to contest the April 8 Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland.

McCraken is on a Blue Grass collision course with Classic Empire (SV Photography)

Also looking toward the Blue Grass is Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) and Sam F. Davis (G3) hero McCraken. Trainer Ian Wilkes ruled him out of Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby (G2) because of an ankle strain. That setback surfaced following a :48.90 half-mile move on February 27, but thankfully it turned out to be a minor blip. Cleared to get back on track, McCraken wasted no time with another half in :50.20 at Palm Meadows Saturday.

“Oh yeah, it’s just good to get that work in and get back to a routine, that’s the main thing,” Wilkes told the Blood-Horse’s Alicia Wincze Hughes. “He had just a maintenance half. I was very pleased with him. The best thing about it was he got better. He galloped out really strong.”

Although the Whitham Thoroughbreds homebred didn’t make the return trip to Tampa, his formline was all over the Tampa Bay Derby. Tapwrit, runner-up to McCraken in his track record-setting Davis, dominated the Oldsmar oval in stakes-record time. Moreover, State of Honor and Wild Shot, who had rounded out the Davis superfecta, chased Tapwrit home to make for a clean sweep of the Tampa Bay Derby.