Mark Casse's confidence didn't waver. It took a shot to the chin, admittedly, when Classic Empire wheeled and dumped jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. at the start of the Sept. 5 Hopeful Stakes (gr. I). But after 37 years of conditioning multiple top-level horses, Casse had to trust what his gut was telling him regarding the son of Pioneerof the Nile —that his barn had its best ever 2-year-old prospect.
It was a theory the bay colt provided indisputable evidence for during his 1 1/16-mile tour around the Santa Anita Park oval Nov. 5. The expected class of the field for the $2 million Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) rose to the top with Classic Empire taking command at the head of the lane, then holding off 5-2 favorite Not This Time by a neck to stamp himself as the likely divisional champion and give the Casse barn its third ever Breeders' Cup triumph.
"All week long (trainer) Dale (Romans with Not This Time) said we were going to run 1-2," Casse grinned. "I said 'OK.' I'm just glad I was the '1.'"
Casse pegged Classic Empire as "the one" when forecasting his prospects after the colt overcame a lousy start in which he ducked in and still came running late to win the Bashford Manor (gr. III) July 2 at Churchill Downs, his second career start.
Then came his infamous antics in the Hopeful, followed by the addition of blinkers and some diligent gate schooling. As much as Classic Empire is quick to react, he is also quick to learn, turning in a professional three-length win in the Oct. 8 Claiborne Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland.
"When he won the Bashford Manor at Churchill in June ...I thought it was the most impressive 2-year-old winner that I'd ever trained," Casse said. "I'm normally not a cocky guy, but I said to a few people (in Saratoga), 'We're going to win the Hopeful today, it's just a matter of how far.'
"Then of course he put me back into reality. But what amazes me is this horse's ability to have such a high cruising speed. And maybe that's another thing that makes this so special. He's an extremely, extremely smart horse, and he tends to see things that maybe others don't, and you never know what he's going to kind of do."
Under textbook handling from jockey Julien Leparoux—who has been board the colt for all four of his victories—Classic Empire broke with no issue out of post No. 5 and proceeded to sit just off the hip of pacesetter Syndergaard through fractions of :23.05 and :46.60. Leparoux let the reins out a notch coming into the final turn and then set his mount down for a sustained drive en route to covering the distance in 1:42.60.
"He broke sharp and I put him in the race right away," Leparoux said. "I tried to open up coming to the quarter pole, which he did and held off Not This Time. We really love him and we knew he was going to run good, so I'm glad we got the win."
Added Romans, "Perfect trip. We just got beat by a real good horse in a fast time."
Practical Joke, winner of the grade I Champagne Stakes, finished third, 7 1/2 lengths behind the top two. Classic Empire paid $11.00, $5.00 and $3.80 across the board.
Star Empire was eased at the finish but walked off under his own power.
The Hopeful debacle represents the only loss in five starts for Classic Empire, who improved his earnings to $1,485,920. With multiple Breeders' Cup wins now under his belt, Casse is hoping his newest stable star can ultimately deliver the classic win his stable is missing.
"Obviously our goal is the first Saturday in May," the Canadian Hall of Fame trainer said.