John Oxley's reigning juvenile champion Classic Empire made a crucial return to the workout tab March 12, when he turned in a half-mile drill at Palm Meadows Training Center that marked the colt's first serious outing since running third in the Feb. 4 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2) and being beset by setbacks in the aftermath.
Working in company, the bay son of Pioneerof the Nile ran four furlongs in :48.95—third fastest of 27 drills at the distance— and galloped out to five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 on the watch of assistant trainer Norman Casse.
"Just very happy with the way that he worked," Casse said. "It was very important that he work today, obviously. Basically without sounding really cliche, we got exactly what we wanted and needed so that we can move forward now."
Simply seeing the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner record a workout was a relief in itself to his connections given the string of bad luck that hit in the days after his disappointing seasonal debut.
An excuse for his Holy Bull loss was found days after that race, when Classic Empire was discovered to have a foot abscess in his right front. The foot has since healed without issue, but a planned workout for the colt had to be aborted last week, when he refused to break off under jockey Julien Leparoux and showed signs of back soreness upon returning to the barn.
An equine therapist was brought in to work on Classic Empire and, by last Sunday, he was showing no signs of physical strife. With a timed move now officially under his belt, Casse said the April 8 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland remains a goal, though a race like the April 15 Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park one week later could be an option if they determine he needs more time.
"The goal is the Blue Grass. We think that's the best place for him to run, as he's obviously been there and we know that he likes the track," Casse said. "But we've said all along, once we started having these little hiccups, that we have to explore every option."
Trained by Mark Casse, Classic Empire captured the Claiborne Breeders' Futurity (G1) at Keeneland in October prior to his Breeders' Cup triumph. He has won four of six starts with $1,520,220 in earnings and his only other defeat prior to the Holy Bull came when he wheeled out of the gate of the Hopeful Stakes (G1) in September and lost his rider.
"Today was very important and the weeks forward will be very important," Norman Casse said. "We're in crunch time now. I think everybody recognizes that. He just has to continue to be happy and keep doing well. We still have plenty of time to get him ready but, it's go-time now."