On the evening of Jan. 28, a Mark Casse-trained, John Oxley-owned runner was winging away on the front end of the richest race ever contested.
There were flutters in their stomachs—a given considering what was on the line. But even with Noble Bird halfway home in the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1), the contingent knew the while the eyes of the racing world were squarely upon their charge at that moment, the weight of expectation wouldn't hit them until they returned to Gulfstream Park one week later.
"We were sitting there watching the Pegasus and ... there was really no pressure on us. It was all on Arrogate and California Chrome ," said Norman Casse, son and top assistant to Mark. "But we were sitting there talking to Mr. Oxley saying 'It's nice to be in this position this weekend, but next weekend, the bulls-eye is on us.' And we're all ready for it."
The pressure of bringing a champion to race where anything less than victory would be considered disappointment is a privilege the Casse barn has come to embrace. On Feb. 4, they have the honor of leading over a charge who fits such a bill, as Oxley's reigning juvenile male champion Classic Empire makes his anticipated seasonal debut in the $350,000 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) against eight rivals at Gulfstream.
Having conditioned Robert Masterson's Tepin to back-to-back Eclipse Awards for champion turf female, it has become old hat for the Casse crew to have a horse in their care most look to for consistent, top-level performances. Four wins and five starts into his career, Classic Empire has already made strides toward earning that reputation, most notably due to his championship-clinching triumph over Not This Time in the Nov. 5 Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita Park.
Aside from his well-documented mental lapse at the start of the Hopeful Stakes (G1), where he dropped jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. out of the gate, Classic Empire has displayed professionalism beyond his years. He proved handy enough during his win in Bashford Manor Stakes (G3) at Churchill Downs last July to overcome a lousy break and still recover with an off-the-pace rally, and he just as easily can sit on or near the front end as he did in both the Breeders' Cup and his victory in the Oct. 8 Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland.
"I think Tepin has trained us a little bit on how to prepare a horse like Classic Empire for his races and the pressure that comes along with him," Norman Casse said. "We're definitely going to have a couple of sleepless nights this week going into the race, but the horse makes me very comfortable. He's breezing very well. We know how special he is.
"We just have to stay out of his way and he'll show up for us."
Mark Casse has said Classic Empire's superior athleticism is what has allowed the son of Pioneerof the Nile to come into form as quickly as he has since returning to the worktab Jan. 8. Trying to find workmates to keep pace with him has been more of a challenge at times than getting him fit coming into the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull.
"I feel like we have him ready. I feel like he's coming into the race the way you want a horse to come into a race," Norman Casse said. "Preparation provides confidence and I'm very confident he's ready to run on Saturday."
Peacock Racing Stables' Gunnevera is also set for his 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull. The multiple graded stakes winner concluded a highly successful juvenile campaign with a last-to-first 5 3/4-length triumph in the $1 million Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (G3) Nov. 19.
The Antonio Sano-trained colt, who broke his maiden at Gulfstream in July, also captured the Saratoga Special (G2) at Saratoga Race Course in August.
"I'm very happy with him. He has trained very well. The race isn't going to be easy, but I think he can win the race," Sano said.
Classic Empire will not be alone in carrying some massive hopes for both his owner and trainer this weekend.
Stablemate and fellow Oxley-owned Pretty City Dancer is also set to make her sophomore debut Saturday in the $200,000 Foward Gal (G2) going seven furlongs over the Gulfstream main track. The daughter of Tapit has not raced since finishing in a dead-heat victory with Sweet Loretta in the Sept. 3 Spinaway Stakes (G1) at Saratoga and she was given the rest of 2016 off due to a minor training setback.
"A couple breezes after her (Spinaway) win, she came back the next morning and was a touch off. We went through a series of X-rays and we couldn't ever really pinpoint anything, but she missed enough time that we felt like she wasn't going to be her best for the Breeders' Cup," Mark Casse said. "On the side of caution, we took her home, which we often do, and gave her a little break and now she's back we feel better than ever."
Pretty City Dancer already owns a piece of Casse racing history, as she became the first horse from the barn to ever win a grade 1 race at Saratoga. She touted her form in three outings prior to the Spinaway, including a 3 1/4 length win in the Debutante Stakes at Churchill in July.
In her most recent five-furlong move Jan. 28, she worked in company with Classic Empire, staying right on even terms with her barnmate as they each finished up in 1:03.90.
"She's obviously coming off a bigger layoff than Classic Empire, so we still have our reservations about how fit she is, although she has worked extremely well all the way along," Norman Casse said. "We've been pointing at this as our comeback race since December. She's a very talented horse and she's been breezing better than she was as a 2-year-old, so we think she's made that transition from 2 to 3 that is very important."
Pretty City Dancer will be reunited with regular rider Julien Leparoux, who has been aboard for each of her first three starts but was absent for the Spinaway while on the sidelines with a broken wrist.
Wildcat Kate and Bode's Dream, separated by a neck when running 1-2 in the Old Hat Stakes Jan. 7, will tangle again in the Forward Gal. Wildcat Kate pressed the pace before pouncing late to avenge her runner-up finish in the House Party Stakes behind Bode's Dream, who suffered her first loss in four starts.
Gulfstream Park, Saturday, February 04, 2017, Race 12
- 1 1/16m
- 3 yo
- 5:35 PM (local)
|1||1Gunnevera (KY)||Javier Castellano||122||Antonio Sano||9/2|
|2||2Perro Rojo (KY)||Nik Juarez||116||Nicholas P. Zito||30/1|
|3||3Classic Empire (KY)||Julien R. Leparoux||122||Mark E. Casse||3/5|
|4||4Talk Logistics (FL)||Paco Lopez||116||Edward Plesa, Jr.||12/1|
|5||5Irish War Cry (NJ)||Joel Rosario||120||H. Graham Motion||15/1|
|6||6Fact Finding (KY)||John R. Velazquez||120||Todd A. Pletcher||6/1|
|7||7Shamsaan (KY)||Luis Saez||116||Kiaran P. McLaughlin||20/1|
|8||8Cavil (KY)||Jose Lezcano||116||Kiaran P. McLaughlin||15/1|
|9||9Fire for Effect (KY)||Corey J. Lanerie||116||Dale L. Romans||20/1|
Gulfstream Park, Saturday, February 04, 2017, Race 6
- 3 yo Fillies
- 2:30 PM (local)
|1||1My Lerler (FL)||Jose Lezcano||116||Antonio Cioffi||30/1|
|2||2Tequilita (KY)||Luis Saez||120||Michael R. Matz||12/1|
|3||3Bode's Dream (KY)||John R. Velazquez||120||Todd A. Pletcher||4/1|
|4||4Pretty City Dancer (KY)||Julien R. Leparoux||122||Mark E. Casse||7/5|
|5||5Brahms Cat (FL)||Luca Panici||116||Larry Bates||30/1|
|6||6Ms Locust Point (KY)||Joel Rosario||120||John C. Servis||5/1|
|7||7Wildcat Kate (FL)||Eduardo O. Nunez||120||Kathleen O'Connell||6/1|
|8||8Summer Luck (KY)||Javier Castellano||116||Mark E. Casse||6/1|
|9||9Lirica (FL)||Edgard J. Zayas||120||Antonio Sano||20/1|