Mark Casse says Classic Empire has an eye on running in the Preakness, the second jewel of the American Triple Crown.
Despite a brutal start and running on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs, Classic Empire finished fourth Saturday in the Kentucky Derby. But the horse also suffered an eye abrasion in the race and was unable to open his right eye the following day.
But on Thursday, Casse said Classic Empire's eye had improved dramatically. Canadian racing's top trainer a record nine times added the expectation is Classic Empre, last year's champion two-year-old, will run in the US$1.5-million Preakness on May 20 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.
"His eye is much better," Casse said during a conference call. "We still had some bad weather in Louisville (Thursday) so he just went out and jogged but Norman (assistant trainer Norman Casse) said he's full of energy.
"That's the plan, the plan is to run."
Classic Empire was named the early 4-1 Derby favourite after last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion rallied to win the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby on April 15. But it was a chaotic trip for bay colt, which was banged around by McCraken at the start before suffering the eye ailment on a wet track that resembled chocolate milk.
Casse reluctantly admitted Classic Empire's eventful trip likely cost him a higher placing in the first jewel of the American Triple Crown.
"It's hard to say but he had so many things go wrong, any of which could cost you the race," Casse said. "He got wiped out at the start . . . and he couldn't open his right eye Sunday morning so I think it cost us a few placings, at least.
"One can only speculate on what the outcome of the race would've been had he been given a clear trip but that's never going to happen so we have to move forward."
Having 20 horses in the race certainly contributed to the physical start for Classic Empire, but Casse doesn't see reducing the field as a viable alternative.
"One of the things that makes the Derby so great is the 20 horses," he said. "Unfortunately, yes, it hurt our chances this year but I just don't think you can do that."
Despite the rough going Saturday, Casse said his horse has bounced back quickly.
"Given everything that happened to him Saturday, it took him less than 30 minutes to eat his dinner," Casse said. "And (Wednesday) when we trained him he was full energy like, 'Put me back in coach, I'm ready.' Maybe he is ready.
"He amazes me because whatever you throw at him he keeps coming back. He's had a lot of things thrown at him this year and he continues to fight back and that just shows you how great he is."
Classic Empire's path to the Derby was a difficult one. He was third in the Holy Bull Stakes in February then battled hoof and back injuries. Twice the son of Pioneerof the Nile balked at training but Casse still remains supremely confident in Classic Empire.
"He's a tough son of a gun," Casse said. "If at any point in time we don't feel he's himself we'd withdraw.
"I'm running him (in Preakness) because we still think he's the best horse and we want to prove it."
Classic Empire finished 8 3/4 lengths behind Always Dreaming in the Derby but Casse is anxious to see the two horses battle in better conditions.
"I feel pretty confident given a level playing field we can make Always Dreaming run for his money," Casse said. "That's the great thing about our sport.
"Everybody can think and believe but we get to prove it on the track. Maybe Always Dreaming will beat him but we're ready to take that shot."