Even as he sat in the eye of the storm, trainer Mark Casse didn't panic.
Instead of listening to outside noise, Casse heeded what his champion charge was telling him. And when the rubber hit the road in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (G1) April 15, the Hall of Fame finalist's instincts were proven dead-on accurate.
Before jumping on a plane to celebrate Easter Sunday with his family, Casse reflected April 16 on the redemption run John Oxley's Classic Empire uncorked in Oaklawn Park's signature prep race. Prevailing by half a length in his first start since February, the son of Pioneerof the Nile regained a sizable portion of respect that had waned during his troubled winter and spring.
It took a village to get Classic Empire in the gate for the Arkansas Derby. After finishing a non-threatening third in the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) in his seasonal bow Feb. 4, the bay colt was found to have a foot abscess—something Casse said explained why the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner was extremely agitated before that dull outing.
When Classic Empire missed more training time due to a couple of aborted works, Casse made the call to change up his environment and shifted the multiple grade 1 winner to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala to try and get him together for a final prep race.
"He's good, he's great this morning," Casse said Sunday. "What I feel good about is we were up front. We were telling everyone the truth of what was going on and so many people were like 'There is no way he will be ready.' But the key to it all is he's a really, really, really good horse. And really, really good horses can overcome a lot of things. And he was a gentleman yesterday.
"We said all along how smart he is and now more than ever, I know what happened at Gulfstream was because of his foot because he was an entirely different horse yesterday. He never turned a hair. And there was plenty of reasons for him to turn hairs."
Casse was quick to give credit to the team effort behind Classic Empire's return to the forefront on the Road to the Kentucky Derby, from his farm manager Mitch Downs and exercise rider Martin Rivera. Assistant trainer David Carroll, however, was just as apt to throw the lion's share of the praise toward the nine-time Sovereign Award-winning conditioner.
"It was really an unbelievable job done by the whole team. I think the change of scenery and getting back to basics was so key," Carroll said from Keeneland. "I said to Mark yesterday, it was remarkable how he was so even keel through all the trials and tribulations. He was always like 'Hey, these things happen.' I was amazed at his demeanor and I learn off him a lot, the way he handles everything.
"I was so happy for him. Obviously I was happy for Mr. Oxley and the horse, but I was really happy for Mark. Yesterday was a big win for the whole team."
Casse said Classic Empire would ship to Louisville April 17 to prepare for his run in the first leg of the Triple Crown, where the cycle of hype has come back around to him as a leading contender.
"It's one of those years where all you're trying to do is get yourself in position to have a chance," Carroll said. "Yesterday, after winning the race...it's a victory in itself to be in the position to run in the Derby. Everyone was so happy and so relieved."