2017 Kentucky Derby Analysis: Trainer Mark Casse and jockey Julien Leparoux seek first Derby victory. Has Classic Empire returned to his elite form? Will he get the 1-1/4 mile distance?

It’s hard to not root for Mark Casse to have success in the Kentucky Derby, he has had so much success with fillies and mares like TEPIN, LEXIE LOU, and CATCH A GLIMPSE.  He got his early background growing up in Indiana before moving to Ocala, Florida where he became one of the founders of the Ocala Breeders’ Sale Company. With most of his family involved in the industry and his dedication to the racing industry, rooting for guys like Casse is easy, but making it big was the hard part. He started early getting a training license at the age of 18.

In 1998 Casse officially named Woodbine Racetrack in Canada his home base. He has won eight awards as the top Canadian trainer. His first graded stakes winner came in 1999. It was a long 20 years from the time he won his first race at Keeneland in 1979, but Casse finally had succeeded on the highest stage. It was a huge upset and the horses name told the tale. EXCITING STORY won the Grade 1 – Metropolitan Handicap at odds of 56-1. He followed that win up by winning his first training title at Woodbine. A successful 1999 propelled him forward onto the major scene of horse racing for the first time in his career. He apparently was well known for pin-hooking great 2 year-old’s. He would train them until they broke their maiden and then sell them off to the high bidder.

In 2007, he started to keep those talented horses and that included Canadian Triple Tiara winner SEALY HILL.  She ended up finishing 2nd in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Casse has had a lot of success training horses on the grass and then converting them over to the Polytrack at Woodbine. He has become an expert at devising a plan to win on the unique Woodbine surface which many horses have had trouble conquering.

By 2011, Casse had won five straight training titles. He ran 1-2-3 in the Grey Stakes at Woodbine Racetrack, a feet never accomplished prior to the race.

UNCAPTURED was Mark Casse’s first realistic chance to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby in 2011. He won three Canadian 2-year-old stakes and then won the Iroqouis and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. After going 6 for 7 as a 2-year-old, Uncaptured succumbed to the pressure of earning a Derby birth by finishing 2nd in the Spiral and 10th in the Blue Grass.

In 2015, Mark Casse stormed onto the national stage in the United States by winning his first two Breeders’ Cup races in the BC Mile (Tepin) and BC Juvenile Fillies Turf (Catch A Glimpse).

Last year, Mark Casse had a legitimate Kentucky Derby contender in DANZIG MOON. He was on the top in many of my Derby tickets and presented a legitimate presence to finish well and his breeding was elite. He ended up running 5th to NYQUIST and it looked like it took a toll on Casse. I think he was proud of the horse for finishing fifth, but later that year Casse was pointing Danzig Moon towards the Queen’s Plate, Canada’s top race. Sadly enough, Danzig Moon had a catastrophic breakdown and had to be euthanized.

My opinion is that it lit a fire in Casse. I think he is fighting harder than ever to get a Kentucky Derby victory. He has a couple of opportunities in the Derby this year with Classic Empire and STATE OF HONOR. Both horses are high quality runners and his 2 year-old Champion, Classic Empire may very well be the Kentucky Derby favorite come May 6th.

Classic Empire was supposed to be the answer to all Casse’s questions coming into his 3-year-old campaign. Then came the Grade 3 – Holy Bull Stakes in February at Gulfstream. Classic Empire looked extremely nervous and couldn’t be more unlike a champion. I have hard time believing that he was ready coming into that race.

Mark Casse came out after the race and said that he was apparently dealing with a nagging abscess on one of his feet. I can imagine how much that must hurt to run at 40mph with a painful hoof. The problem caused him to miss the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby. He was pointed towards the last Kentucky Derby prep possible so he would get all the rest he needs.

As I wrote las week in the Arkansas Derby preview, Classic Empire is the best horse in every race he enters if he shows up in form and behaves himself. The problem is that after the Holy Bull. There always will be the chance that he shows up like that. It’s really too bad because had he won that race and everything went as planned. We could be looking at a major Derby favorite. He was so impressive as a 2-year-old, it was hard imagining him taking any steps back.



We don’t need to say a whole lot about Pioneerof the Nile when it comes to what he brings to his offspring. He offers a load of speed and stamina and has proven to be an elite sire when it comes to producing winners of classic race distances. Out of the great stamina producer EMPIRE MAKER, Pioneerof the Nile accomplished a lot in the little amount of time he was on the racetrack. He won all three of California’s Kentucky Derby preps, capping it off with a solid 2nd place finish in the 2009 Kentucky Derby. He had trouble in the Preakness Stakes running 11th and it was announced  after that season’s Triple Crown races that he would be retired to stud.

He succeeded at stud immediately. He sired three Derby prospects in his first crop which included SOCIAL INCLUSION who hit the board in the Preakness Stakes. In his second season as stud he sired the horse that needs no introduction AMERICAN PHAROAH. Following the success of Pharoah, Pioneerof the Nile’s stud fee was set above $100,000. He currently stands for $110,000 at WinStar Farm.

What does this mean for Classic Empire? It means he has the elite blood and muscular features to win the Kentucky Derby if he is in form. The Arkansas Derby certainly eased many handicappers worries. After the Holy Bull Stakes many people were shaking their heads. It was hard to gauge whether the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was an abomination or whether he just had a bad day. At this point, we have to think it was a little bit of both. It is possible that he is not quite as good as that big Beyer figure implied, but he was much better in the Arkansas Derby but not what he was at Santa Anita in November. I think we should take it all with a grain of salt and assume that he definitely is capable of winning the Kentucky Derby, but he is also capable of stinking it up too.



Apparently, Classic Empire carries on the high level talent of the great BOLD RULER. He gets his stamina from the ultra successful ALANESIAN. The horse BOLD REASON had a premature death, but produced the great SEATTLE SLEW in his final crop. Sambuca Classic never won a race, but her pedigree is unbelievable and she should produce many winners when bred well.  3 of 4 siblings are stakes winners, all are winners, and half-sister UPTOWN TWIRL is a multi-stakes winner at distances of 6 furlongs or less. Classic Empire is the only offspring to win beyond 6 furlongs.

It is interesting that none of Sambuca Classic’s offspring have produced wins routing. The bloodlines say that they should do very well at distances beyond 8 furlongs, but the only one to prove that is Classic Empire. So, if you do have questions regarding the breeding of this horse, it’s possible the female line is not responsible for any stamina going farther than six furlongs. Can Pioneerof the Nile make up for that lack of routing talent? I think so.


There will be a few key indicators and they were pretty obvious on Holy Bull day. For those of us who are available to decipher whether or not a horse looks to be in good form and physical condition on the track and in the paddock it will be a key measure of how he is feeling. If Classic Empire is warming up like a champion, he will give his best effort. If he is not, he should not be on any of your tickets. It definitely hurts in horizontal wagers like the Pick 4 and Pick 5, but I honestly believe most of us are not going to go after a favorite unless the odds are right. And to be honest, right now, I would want at least 5-1 or a bit higher on Classic Empire. There is just too much to worry about at odds of 5-2 or something that low. We’ll see how it all shakes out, but pay very close attention to whether or not he is washed out on his neck and whether he is producing major kidney sweat. For those of you who don’t know what I mean, being washed out means that he would have a white foamy substance on his neck where the reigns hang down. Kidney sweat is in the area under the rump of the horse, between both legs on the inner thigh (gaskin), below on the genitalia area. If there is a white foamy substance there it can indicate nervousness, energy use, and the inability to run to full capacity. Sometimes a horse can run through these problems, but if the kidney sweat begins to run down towards the hock and the horses cannon bone (lower leg), I would be very worrisome. In other words, pay very close attention to Classic Empire.


Official analysis will come out when the post positions are drawn and so forth because that matters a great deal in these races. I would be very surprised if I didn’t have Classic Empire somewhere near the top of my ticket, but there is a lot of news to come out in the next 18 days, so we’ll see how far off I am between now and then.

Right now, I would say, use Classic Empire and he should be on your tickets. His size, speed, and stamina all point to success.


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