Trainer Mark Casse kept racking his brain in the aftermath of the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) trying to come up with a reason why reigning juvenile male champion Classic Empire put in the most non-competitive outing of his young career.
By the morning of Feb. 7, the Canadian Hall of Fame conditioner could look at the colt's right front foot and have a concrete explanation.
Days after John Oxley's Classic Empire finished a well-beaten third to Irish War Cry in the Holy Bull, a foot abscess was discovered in the son of Pioneerof the Nile , providing his connections a reason—and some relief —as to why the bay colt was agitated and washed out in the post parade and, consequently, never threatened during his seasonal bow.
Casse said that while Classic Empire appeared in good order Sunday after the race, the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner was noticeably off Monday morning and "couldn't walk at all" by that afternoon. X-rays on the foot came back clean and by Tuesday morning, the abscess began to drain before busting wide open Wednesday.
"One thing about this horse is he is very tough. He never gave us any indication, but it's one thing when you're walking and you're jogging at a slow pace. It's another when you're running at 40 miles per hour," Casse said Thursday. "This is not something that just popped up. It had to have been brewing. I wonder if that's why he got so upset and didn't run better.
"(Jockey) Julien (Leparoux) said he felt okay running but even in the post parade ... he said he was just a bundle of nerves. So honestly, it's a great relief. We knew that his race was too bad to be true. You start grasping at straws to come up with some reason why he ran so bad. Then we got the answer."
The 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull marked the first time Classic Empire was beaten when he actually made it out of the gate in good order. The only other blemish in his six starts came in the Sept. 5 Hopeful Stakes (G1) at Saratoga Race Course, where he wheeled at the break and dropped jockey Irad Ortiz Jr.
With a excuse to point to, Casse said all options remain on the table for Classic Empire's next start, including the March 4 $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park.
"Given what we know now, it puts the Fountain of Youth back in the picture," said Casse, who initially said Classic Empire was unlikely to run back at Gulfstream. "I honestly found it hard to believe that he wouldn't like the track. He broke his maiden on a muddy track at Churchill Downs, he won on a fast track at Churchill, he won at Keeneland, and won at Santa Anita Park, so he's not a horse that needs to take his track with him. It all makes a lot more sense now. I know I feel a lot better."
Casse added Classic Empire could return to the track by Feb. 10.
Fellow Eclipse Award-winner Tepin is already back training after suffering a mild bout of colic Feb. 5 that caused her to miss her planned seasonal debut in the Feb. 11 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes (G3T). Casse said the two-time defending champion turf female could possibly return to the worktab this weekend.