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Billy Reed: Casse strives for balance as trainer of likely Derby favorite Classic Empire

Updated: May. 2, 2017 at 5:41 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The table was covered with a white cloth, so Mark Casse didn"t really know if it was made of wood. But assuming it was, the trainer of likely Kentucky Derby favorite Classic Empire interrupted his conversation often to rap it three times for luck.

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This was on the backstretch mid-morning Tuesday at Churchill Downs, where the Derby will be contested for the 143rd time late Saturday afternoon. Bundled in a red jacket to ward off the chill, Casse tried to be philosophical as he talked about what it's like to be the Derby favorite's trainer.

"In one way, it's great," he said. "It means a lot of people think you have the best horse. I'll take that every year. But in another way, there's a lot surrounding it. It's pressure, for sure. You just get them to the post and hope for the best."

Rap, rap, rap.

He's experiencing the same ups and downs, the same confidence and concern, that the trainers of the Derby favorite encounter every year. When you have a longshot, it's easy to float beneath the radar. But when you have the favorite, you're constantly bombarded by the army of folks toting notepads, iPads, smart phones, microphones and cameras.

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Like his predecessors in the media age, Casse strives for balance. He wants to project confidence, but also caution. He doesn't want to dampen anybody's enthusiasm, but he also knows all about the vagaries of racing luck. The best horse doesn't always win, especially in the Kentucky Derby.

When Classic Empire won the Breeders Cup Juvenile on Nov. 16 at Santa Anita, Casse's life changed. His colt was awarded the 2-year-old championship and anointed the early favorite for Derby 143. Every move the colt and Casse made would be subjected to widespread scrutiny and speculation.

Although Casse, 56, has been Canada's dominant trainer for a decade, and although he has three Breeders Cup victories to his credit, nothing has prepared him for having the Derby favorite. If his stomach is churning, he doesn"t show it. He tries to go about his business normally, which, of course, is impossible.

He was put on the hot seat on Feb. 4, when Classic Empire finished a dull third in his 3-year-old debut. The reason was detected two days later. The colt had a severely abscessed right front foot. The abscess forced him to shift his weight, which put a strain on his back.

Once the abscess healed, however, Classic Empire threw another curve ball at his trainer. Twice he was taken to the track for training and simply refused to run. Where in the D. Wayne Lukas handbook is the solution for this? So after talking to owner John Oxley, who won the 2001 Derby with Monarchos, Casse decided to ship him to his training center in Ocala, Fla., and go back to basics.

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He brought in the man who had broken Classic Empire to the saddle as a 2-year-old. He became something of a horse whisperer, working on the colt"s psyche as well as his physical condition. When the work was done, Casse had only one option remaining if he were to get Classic Empire into the Derby field: the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby on April 15 at Oaklawn Park.

Having no idea what to expect, Casse saw magic.

Despite being checked on the backstretch, Classic Empire circled the field in the turn for home and passed three horses in the last eighth of a mile to snatch a half-length victory from Conquest Mo Money. Suddenly the Derby had the favorite for whom everybody had been looking all spring.

"It was a little dicey there for a while," Casse said. "A lot of sleepless nights and worries that he would even get here. But he"s worked really well since he"s been here, and, the track turns up muddy on Derby Day, I think he"s the only horse in the field that has a win at Churchill on a muddy track."

Rap, rap, rap.

That would be Classic Empire"s first start last May 4. On a sloppy track three days before Nyquist"s win in Derby 142, the son of Pioneerof The Nile, out of the Cat Thief mare Sambucca Classica, won a 4½-length maiden race under jockey Julien Leparoux, who has ridden the colt in all his starts except one.

As if he doesn"t have enough to occupy his mind, Casse also will saddle State of Honor in the Derby. He"s a huge – 17.1 hands high, or Shaquille O"Neal territory in the horse game – chestnut colt who figures to be on or near the lead in a race that doesn"t appear to have many runners who can set a fast, early pace.

Although State of Honor has won only once in 10 career starts, he was second in both the Tampa Bay Derby and Florida Derby, and has been no worse than third in his last six starts, all against good competition.

"It wouldn't surprise me a bit to see him go to the lead and stay there the whole way," Casse said. "He"s a really big, good-looking colt."

Nevertheless, Leparoux gave up the mount on State of Honor to ride Classic Empire, opening the way for Jose Lezcano to get the mount on what"s supposed to be Casse's lesser entrant.

"I've dreamed of winning the Kentucky Derby ever since I was 12 (when I came) to Churchill to see Secretariat," Casse said. "The Derby is every horseman"s dream. When you meet somebody and they find out you"re a trainer, the first thing they ask is whether you've won the Derby. It would be nice to be able to say you did."

So sayeth the man on the hot seat, the one who'll be trying to hold himself and his favorite together until the starting gates clang open late Saturday afternoon.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes regular sports columns to WAVE3.com.

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