Veteran trainer Mark Casse believes Classic Empire gives him his best shot at winning an elusive Kentucky Derby title.
Last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion overtook Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy in deep stretch to win the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 15. That impressive showing has many believing Classic Empire will be the early favourite at next week's race draw for the May 6 race at Churchill Downs.
"I thought his race was tremendous given all the obstacles we had to overcome," Casse said. "I don't see any reason why his next performance can't be as good if not better.
"Right now, he's a happy horse."
Classic Empire's path to the Kentucky Derby was a difficult one.
After running third in the Bull Stakes on Feb. 4, Classic Empire developed a foot abscess, then required treatment for a back injury Casse figured was caused by the foot ailment. Not only did the colt miss training time but twice he aborted workouts.
However, Casse, nine times Canada's top trainer, never gave up on the horse, always figuring Classic Empire would be a Derby contender when healthy.
"If you would've told me a month and a half ago we'd be sitting where we're at, I would've been just delighted," Casse said. "I'm happy, confident but not over-confident because we still have a long way to go.
"To have a shot to win the Derby you need everything to go right. This horse, in my opinion, is special, he can overcome some things that just a good horse can't. I've always said the difference between good horses and great horses is great horses win when everything doesn't go their way. Good horses only win when things go their way."
Classic Empire has won five-of-seven career starts and three of his last four. His sire, Pioneerof the Nile, was second in the '09 Kentucky Derby to Mine That Bird, the 50-1 longshot who was Canada's champion two-year-old male in '08.
Pioneerof the Nile also sired '15 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.
There's pressure that comes with being considered a Derby favourite, but Casse takes a philosophical approach to that contention.
"Yes and no," he said. "The pressure was getting to where we're at.
"We just need things to continue go OK but I think most people would say to be where we've been we're fortunate so whatever happens from this point on we've done our best."
Casse will have two shots to win the Derby. He'll also enter State of Honor, a Canadian-owned and bred three-year-old Casse said comes into the race under the radar.
"I think State of Honor is being overlooked some," he said. "Our feeling is State of Honor has trained as good, if not better, than he ever has.
"When you look at the horses that are some of the favourites, he hasn't been beaten that far by them. He's a real hard-trying horse, he just has to step up a little bit and it puts him right there."
State of Honor has a win from 10 lifetime starts but has been second four times and third twice. State of Honor finished five lengths behind Always Dreaming — another expected Derby favourite — in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on April 1.
Conventional wisdom suggests if State of Honor shows well in the Derby, he could be the favourite for the $1-million Queen's Plate in July at Woodbine Racetrack. However, Casse said the horse didn't take early in his career to Woodbine's Tapeta synthetic track.
"If I just didn't think he was himself on the synthetic I think you'd probably maybe have a better shot of seeing him at the Prince of Wales (second leg of Canadian Triple Crown in Fort Erie, Ont.)," Casse said. "But that's a long way down the road.
"If things go right, you might see him run in the Preakness trying to win the (U.S.) Triple Crown."
With a 20-horse field, there'll be no shortage of competition at the Derby. But that doesn't concern Casse.
"I think that's an advantage for us," he said. "I think our horse (Classic Empire) has already dealt with some bigger fields and been able to handle it where, in my opinion, some of the horses that are going to be tough to beat haven't.
"Hopefully we have a clean trip but if we don't I think we have a better shot at overcoming it than some of the others."