Champion Classic Empire will not run in the June 10 Belmont Stakes (G1) due to a hoof abscess in the bulb of his right front, trainer Mark Casse said June 7.
Casse said the abscess was discovered Wednesday morning and is a recurrence of the same issue that plagued the son of Pioneerof the Nile in the aftermath of his third-place finish in the Feb 4. Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes (G2). John Oxley's colt was expected to be the favorite in the final leg of the Triple Crown fresh off his runner-up effort in the May 20 Preakness Stakes (G1).
"This morning his foot is bugging him again," Casse said from Belmont Park, where Classic Empire arrived the afternoon of June 6. "It's the same thing that got him after the Holy Bull. When we came in this morning, he could hardly get around. And there is a very good chance that in the next hour it will bust and he'll be fine, but even with that, we wouldn't want to do that to him."
Classic Empire's defection from the Belmont field is the latest setback in what has been a star-crossed 3-year-old season for the reigning juvenile champion.
After he missed weeks of training time when the initial abscess surfaced following the Holy Bull, Classic Empire was then diagnosed with a minor back issue and had a couple well-publicized instances where he refused to break off for timed works.
In a last-ditch effort to get the bay colt back on track in advance of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1), the Casse team made the decision to send Classic Empire to Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla.—where he was broken—and pair him with veteran exercise rider Martin Rivera. Despite being short on fitness, the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner put himself back on the classic forefront with a victory in the Feb. 15 Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn Park. His outing on the first Saturday in May quickly went awry, however, when he got slammed by McCraken at the break but still ran on to finish fourth behind Always Dreaming in the Kentucky Derby.
Classic Empire emerged from that Derby outing with a swollen right eye and some superficial cuts, but was strong enough energy wise that his connections sent him on to Baltimore two weeks later. While he was caught in the final strides of the Preakness by Cloud Computing, the fact he took it to Always Dreaming in the early going and ended up falling just a head short at the wire had many cycling back to him in the debate over who the best sophomore male runner in the country was.
"I did a thing with NBC the other day and they said 'Do you ever dream about or think about winning races like these' and I said 'No, I honestly don't.' And the reason I don't is because there are too many things that can happen and too many things that are out of your control," Casse said. "We could have waited. He could be fine in an hour. But even if he was, would that have been fair to him (to run him)? This horse has been too good to us. The bad news is he's not going to run. The good news is this is a temporary deal and he'll get over it."
Casse added that Classic Empire would now be pointed toward a summer campaign that could include the Haskell Invitational Stakes (G1) at Monmouth Park.
With Classic Empire is out of the Belmont, the role of favoritism will likely land on multiple graded stakes winner Irish War Cry, who finished tenth in the Kentucky Derby but bypassed the Preakness. The son of Curlin has tactical early speed, which is key to conquering the 12-furlong test, and previously captured the April 8 Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets (G2).
"It's bad luck for them. He's a very nice horse and they've done a great job with him," Dallas Stewart, trainer of expected Belmont contender Hollywood Handsome, said of losing Classic Empire from the field.
Bred by Steven and Brandi Nicholson, Classic Empire has won five of nine starts and has $2,520,220 in earnings.