John Oxley's reigning juvenile male champion Classic Empire is still targeting the April 8 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland trainer Mark Casse confirmed, despite an aborted workout March 3 when the son of Pioneerof the Nile showed discomfort in his back.
Some setbacks have hit Classic Empire in recent weeks, the first when the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner emerged from his third-place run in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) with a foot abscess that took a handful of days to fully drain.
Though the foot healed nicely, Casse said a planned workout at Palm Meadows Training Center Friday was scrapped when Classic Empire refused to break off under jockey Julien Leparoux and was extremely sensitive in his back area upon returning to the barn.
Casse said an equine therapist was brought in to exam Classic Empire March 4 and that "she went over his back, found a few issues and treated him." After Casse's main veterinarian checked the colt over the morning of March 5, the Canadian Hall of Fame trainer said his star sophomore was showing no soreness and that the plan is to walk him a couple extra days before hopefully returning him to the track this week.
"He was really sensitive when Julien went to get off him the other day. When Julien put his hands on his withers, he almost dropped to the ground so it was really weird," Casse said March 5. "This morning...our main vet went over him and he couldn't believe how much better he was today. The good news is there is nothing substantial.
"There is a very good shot the issue with his foot ended up causing the back issue," Casse continued. "Anyone that has had any kind of injury, when you change your gait, it can hurt your back. So possibly the foot bruise and him being off and traveling different affected his back in some way. He's a work in progress. But the good news is we still have a lot of time and I wouldn't count us out yet."
Though Casse initially wanted to get three prep races into Classic Empire before the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), the timing of the Blue Grass gives him wiggle room to recover from his recent issues.
"We deal with issues like this all the time. This is part of training racehorses," Casse said. "We've just never had to deal with it with the champion and the Breeders' Cup winner. So every little thing he does is under high focus, but that's OK. We're still going forward."
Bred by Steven and Brandi Nicholson, Classic Empire has won four of six careers starts, including a triumph in the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland last October. His only loss prior to the Holy Bull came when he wheeled out of the gate and dumped jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. in the Sept. 5 Hopeful Stakes (G1).
Casse added two-time defending champion turf female Tepin continues to train well after missing her expected seasonal bow in the Feb. 11 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes (G3T) due to a mile bout of colic, but that no decision has been made yet on when she might breeze.
"She was full of herself this morning," Casse said. "We still haven't decided when we're going to breeze her. We're kind of waiting for her to tell us when she wants to breeze. But she's a happy camper right now."