Mark Casse wants to make his intentions this week clear.
The reason the Canadian Hall of Fame trainer sent Classic Empire to Baltimore, following the colt's demolition derby run on the First Saturday of May, had everything to do with his belief that the juvenile champion still holds a class edge over most of his brethren. And the reason Casse still speaks in confident tones about the son of Pioneerof the Nile is because he sees how well John Oxley's runner has behaved and trained in the weeks since he took a shot to his body out of the gate and still ran on to get fourth in the first leg of the Triple Crown.
What the 142nd Preakness Stakes (G1) is not about for Casse is seeking some kind of vengeance on the dark bay bullet that ultimately prevailed in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1).
"There is no revenge. Always Dreaming's done nothing but run fast," Casse said. "I would think of it more as, we're not far from where (the movie) 'Rocky' all started. The champ's been knocked down and he's going to come back and try to take back the crown. But it's got nothing to do with revenge, because Always Dreaming did nothing wrong. He's the champ now and we're just going to go after him."
History has shown the Preakness to be a race that allows class to prevail above all other variables, evidenced by the fact that 13 eventual divisional champions have won the 1 3/16-mile test since 2000. By that measure, it is hard to see past the two talents set to break alongside one another in the Pimlico Race Course starting gate, as Always Dreaming and Classic Empire stand as the towering figures in Saturday's classic.
Since Always Dreaming's Kentucky Derby triumph, there has been ample reason for both his camp and Classic Empire's to feel emboldened about the prospect of their horses throwing down something exceptional 14 days later. In the case of the former, if the 10-furlong test took any edge off his high-powered stride, one wouldn't know it watching the son of Bodemeister repeatedly test exercise rider Nick Bush's ability to keep his energy harnessed in the mornings.
Trainer Todd Pletcher is admittedly not a fan of wheeling back horses on a short turnaround, but even that discomfort noticeably waned as he watched Always Dreaming bounce out of what should have been the hardest race of his life with no outward appearance of strain. And with only Classic Empire and Conquest Mo Money possibly bringing early speed to the table, Always Dreaming's high-cruising style may not be as taxed as when he raced off fractions of :22.70 and :46.53 in the Derby.
"I think he's pretty special," said Pletcher, who will saddle just his ninth Preakness starter. "We're going to find out more, but so far when you look at what he has done this year, winning his first couple of races by open lengths, winning the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby by the margins he did—it's pretty exceptional. It's pretty rare that you see that.
"We've seen everything we hoped we would see (since the Derby). We've seen good appetite, good energy, good gallops, (he) gets over the ground well. ... I don't think I could change anything at this point."
What Classic Empire's camp would like to change is the sight of the dark bay colt getting slammed by McCraken at the start of the Kentucky Derby, a hit jockey Julien Leparoux said nearly unseated him and left the duo pinched back in 13th.
That roughly run outing left the Sentient Jet Bree,ders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner with a swollen right eye and laments from his team about what might have been had his trip gone even close to as planned. Remarkably, the colt bounced out of that effort with a string of on-the-muscle gallops that suggest he is as fit as ever during his star-crossed 3-year-old season.
Even if Classic Empire's current form can't match that of Always Dreaming at the moment, Casse wants to see what plays out when the best of the best get conditions that are fair to all.
"I probably didn't give Always Dreaming as much credit as I should have. But now after watching him run I'm like, maybe we can't beat him. Maybe with our best effort we can't beat him, but I think we'll make him run," Casse said of his charge, the 3-1 second choice on the morning line. "I think he's a really good horse. We have a really good horse. So when you put two really good horses together, you don't know what is going to happen."
Acknowledging they have the two most accomplished contenders in the Preakness, Casse and Pletcher are equally quick to dismiss the notion they are each other's only main threat.
Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee hasn't won since taking the Ellis Park Juvenile Stakes in August but has five top-three efforts in graded stakes races, including his rail-riding run at Churchill Downs May 6. Whether he can duplicate that rally in the Preakness, which figures to have less pace influence, is the key question.
His connections, however, take exception to the notion the son of Lookin At Lucky simply benefitted two weeks ago from a dream run over the most favorable portion of the track.
"We love him so much just because of how hard he tries," said Scott Blasi, assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen. "We don't consider him a longshot. He still had to be fast enough. It's the Kentucky Derby and horses that have run well in the Derby have historically run back well in the Preakness.
"We need some pace and some things to go our way. But that being said, our horse made a big run."
Asmussen will also saddle Sunland Derby (G3) winner Hence in the Preakness, as the son of Street Boss looks to rebound off his 11th-place Kentucky Derby outing.
"Hence has shown brilliance, but he has lacked some consistency," Asmussen said. "But with his ability, we're hoping that tomorrow in the Preakness is one of his great days."
Multiple graded stakes winner Gunnevera is the only other holdover from the Kentucky Derby and appears to have put on weight since his seventh-place outing May 6. The son of Dialed In gets the addition of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith in the irons for Saturday, as his previous rider, Javier Castellano, is committed to Gotham Stakes (G3) runner-up Cloud Computing in the Preakness.
History has not been kind to so-called "new shooters" in the Preakness, as only six horses since 1980 have won the middle leg without previously starting in the Kentucky Derby. Of those throwing fresh legs into the mix Saturday, Conquest Mo Money has admirable form. He finished second to Classic Empire in the April 15 Arkansas Derby (G1), while Senior Investment showed his upside with a win in the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes (G3) at Keeneland.
"Last out I had plenty of horse left after the Lexington," jockey Channing Hill said of Senior Investment. "He really galloped out. I don't know about other peoples' horses, but I know my horse will do what I want and nothing fazes him. I think I have a legitimate chance to run (in the top) three."
Since Always Dreaming came to Pletcher's barn in September, he has yet to have his progression slowed at any point of call. If it turns out the burgeoning star is too good for the rest of his classmates, Casse for one said he would switch from the role of rival to that of endorser.
"If we can't win, I want Always Dreaming to win, because this sport is so important to me," Casse said. "It's always nice to have a horse going for the Triple Crown. If we can't win, I hope he does."