Great as a freshening can be a for a horse's development, horsemen battle certain nerves when the time comes to get their charges back to work. Will the top runner put away months before emerge as good, if not better, than their previous incarnation? And how much fitness was sacrificed during a needed bout of rest and relaxation?
The Casse Racing shedrow got their first positive answer to some of those questions Jan. 8 when Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Classic Empire and champion turf female Tepin each turned in their first moves of 2017.
Classic Empire, the overwhelming favorite to earn the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male, worked four furlongs in company with stablemate Kaigun at Palm Meadows Training Center, the first move for the son of Pioneerof the Nile since his likely hardware-clinching Breeders' Cup triumph Nov. 5. A few hours later, it was reigning queen Tepin taking the spotlight as the 2015 Breeders' Cup Mile (G1T) winner coasted through a solo half-mile move in :49 4/5 over the Palm Meadows turf under jockey Julien Leparoux.
Norman Casse, son and top assistant to trainer and Eclipse Award finalist Mark Casse, said he caught both Classic Empire and Tepin galloping out in 1:02. But the stopwatch only told half the story.
The level of energy John Oxley's colt displayed back in the barn was the real litmus test in letting his connections know he is ready to get serious toward his seasonal bow, which could come in the Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) at Gulfstream Park Feb. 4. As far as Tepin goes, she showcased that at age 6, she is every bit the seasoned pro, going about her business as she pleases.
"He looked awesome," Norman Casse said of Classic Empire. "Obviously you're a little concerned about where his fitness level is, but he showed really good energy. He came back to the barn, he was bouncing. The work didn't take anything out of him.
"With Tepin, we just wanted to go an easy half with her, let her stretch her legs. That's one of the only things that is difficult about her is judging her (works) because she does things so easily. I think we've been fooled a few times. Now that we've done this a few years with her, we've figured her out a bit. When we need to start getting more serious, we'll probably put her in company."
Just as Classic Empire is favored to earn divisional honors, Tepin is expected to take home her second straight Eclipse Award for champion turf female following a global campaign last season that saw the daughter of Bernstein earn three grade/group I wins in three countries.
After getting her feet wet with four consecutive graded wins stateside to start 2016—highlighted by a five-length victory in the Coolmore Jenny Wiley (G1) last April—Robert Masterson's Tepin crossed the Atlantic and became the first North American-based horse to prevail in the Queen Anne Stakes (G1) at Royal Ascot in June.
When the bay mare returned to the races three months to capture the Sept. 17 Ricoh Woodbine Mile (G1T), her third career triumph against males, the crowd chanted her name upon her jaunt to the winner's circle. Though she would suffer back-to-back runner-up efforts in the First Lady (G1) and Breeders' Cup Mile to end the year, there was little to suggest she could not return stoutly for a 2017 campaign, which could feature a trip to Dubai in March.
"For one, she's intelligent. She loves being a racehorse," said Casse, who reiterated the Lambholm South Endeavour (G3T) at Tampa Bay Downs Feb. 11 is the likely spot for Tepin's seasonal bow. "She's very, very sound and she can train hard, she can run very often. She just doesn't really have any hiccups."
Finding workmates who are good enough to keep Classic Empire honest in the AM has been one of happy challenges Casse has dealt with. In 7-year-old graded stakes winner Kaigun, Casse thinks he has finally found a stablemate who can push the bay youngster as needed.
"This is a perfect scenario because Kaigun is a great work horse," Casse said. "Although he is a multiple graded stakes winner on the grass, he's actually a really good dirt work horse. They're basically both starting back and I would say they'll probably work together from here until they both start."
Classic Empire is the overwhelming favorite to earn the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male following a 2016 campaign where his only blemish was a mental lapse. Aside from the Sept. 5 Hopeful (G1) where he wheeled out of the gate and dropped jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., Classic Empire was a total professional in winning four of five starts, including the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) prior to his Breeders' Cup victory.
Grade 1 winner Pretty City Dancer was also among the Casse standouts on the Sunday worktab, going a half mile in company with graded stakes winner Riker in a bullet :47 4/5. Pretty City Dancer, who has not run since dead-heating for the win in the Sept. 3 Spinaway (G1) at Saratoga Race Course, is likely to make her seasonal bow in the seven-furlong Forward Gal (G2) Feb. 4.
"She's doing exceptionally well," Casse said.