Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Empire Strikes Back?



“Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped---

‘That ain’t my style,’ said Casey.  ‘Strike one!’ the umpire said.”


When dawn broke in Louisville, Kentucky last Saturday, two-year-old Champion Classic Empire found himself the favorite for the 143rd running of the iconic Kentucky Derby, the race by which all others are measured.  It was only fitting.  He was, after all, the smashing winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and had recently annexed the challenging Arkansas Derby.  But there were still questions about trainer Mark Casse’s charge in the wake of 1-2 favorite Classic Empire’s third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream, followed by a hoof abscess, a murky back problem and the horse’s refusal to work on a couple of occasions.  In the wake of the Holy Bull disappointment, there were even some doubts as to whether CE would gather up enough Derby points to be eligible for the race.  Then, at Oaklawn, the champ looked to be in some trouble after swinging very wide in the far turn, barely prevailing after a determined charge down the stretch.

In the Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire appeared to have a safe enough post position, breaking from the 14 hole, the last stall in the permanent gate.  The added space between post 14 and the next hole in the auxiliary gate should allow a horse plenty of room to maneuver even with less than a perfect break.  Or so you’d think.  When the bell rang, however, Classic Empire broke to his right.  Meanwhile, Irish War Cry broke from the 17 hole to his left, shoving Tapwrit and McCracken left, the latter banging into Classic Empire, who was also hindered later in the stretch.  That the colt was able to gather himself up and finish fourth is a tribute to determination and his rugged constitution.  But horses don’t win many classic races in the throes of adversity.

Maybe this time Casse’s horse will draw the long straw.  The Derby field will be cut in half for the Preakness, reducing traffic, and racing luck usually evens out over the long haul.  There appears to be only one other horse good enough to win.  So far, there are no reports of errant asteroids in the vicinity and North Korean missiles are stumbling short of Hilo.  With any kind of luck, Classic Empire should be right there at the finish.  Right?

Mark Casse thinks so, as does exercise rider Martin Rivera.  “He’s a happy horse,” Rivera remarked Sunday after a mile-and-a-half gallop.  “He’s been doing better each day of training and feels great moving over the track.”  Casse relates “We’re all excited to give Classic Empire another shot in the Preakness.  His trip was compromised in the Derby after the start and hopefully we’re in a much better spot going into the first turn next Saturday than we were in the Derby.”  Just asking, but are there any black cats in that barn?




The Field

As expected, few Kentucky Derby horses will show up in Baltimore, and why should they?  Aside from the winner, Always Dreaming, and Classic Empire, only Lookin’ At Lee made a case for himself in Lexington.  His jockey, Corey Lanerie, kept his mount on the rail most of the way and he was closing fast at the end of the race.  “Turning for home, I thought we were going to win the race,” Lanerie said.  “I kept him close to the rail, which was playing the best throughout the weekend, and once the speed started backing up we were in perfect position.  I’ve tasted what it’s like to think we are going to win the Kentucky Derby.  Now, hopefully we can get the job done in the Preakness. 

Apparently, Steve Asmussen, who trains Lookin’ At Lee is getting a two-for-one transportation rate because that seems the only rational explanation for bringing along Louisville also-ran Hence, who finished 11th, beaten a frightful 18 1/2 lengths.  In some sort of record for optimism, Asmussen opines his colt has a shot.  “He did not get a fair run in the Derby,” rationalized the conditioner, “owing to the amount of slop being kicked in his face.” Well, Steve, that’s what happens when you start out 18th and never get closer than 11th.

The other Derby horse headed for the Preakness is Gunnevera, seventh in Louisville.  Even his Derby rider, Javier Castellano, doesn’t think this is a good idea.  According to Gunnevera’s trainer, the often kidnapped Antonio Sano, Castellano is moving over to Cloud Computing, a non-Derby entry trained by  hot-as-a-pistol Chad Brown.  Looking around the backstretch, Sano found an idle Mike Smith to take the mount on Gunnevera.  Mike’s Derby mount, Girvin, finished somewhere west of Memphis in the Derby, even behind Hence, so he’s used to disappointment.

Speaking of disappointment, the connections of Royal Mo are justifiably down in the dumps.  Their Preakness prospect will spend next Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center clinic instead of in Baltimore, the victim of a fracture of the inside right front sesamoid bone after a work at Pimlico Sunday morning.  Rider Gary Stevens, who had taken a red-eye flight from Southern California Sunday to pilot Royal Mo in his final workout, said he heard a pop turning into the stretch while racing outside a workmate.

“He was going better than he had before the Santa Anita Derby,” said Stevens.  “I was getting goosebumps down my neck.  As we were rounding into the stretch, I was thinking how much I was going to let him gallop out.  Thankfully, when he went, I had a hold of him.  He pulled himself up.  He was loving the racetrack.  He was getting over it nice.  I want to let everyone know the track was perfect.  It’s just one of those deals.”  Royal Mo had topped the also-eligible list for the Kentucky Derby but failed to draw into the field. 

In case you were wondering, the non-Derby horses scheduled to show up for the Preakness are the previously mentioned Cloud Computing, a less-than-thrilling third in the Wood Memorial, Conquest Mo Money, who almost beat Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby, Multiplier, winner of the Illinois Derby,  Senior Investment, victorious in the Lexington Stakes and Term of Art, who was last seen finishing seventh in the Santa Anita Derby.

Conquest Mo Money is suspect at the Preakness distance of 1 3/16, having been caught by a problem-plagued Classic Empire at the wire of a not particularly fast Arkansas Derby.  Multiplier barely edged the favored Hedge Fund in a quick Illinois Derby.  His pedigree (by The Factor, out of a Trippi mare) says sprinter but so far he’s been an anomaly.  Senior Investment upset a mediocre field in the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 15th.  Before that, he finished sixth in the Louisiana Derby, soundly beaten by Girvin, which should tell you all you need to know.  Cloud Computing grabbed our attention for a couple of seconds due to his Chad Brown/Javier Castellano connections.  When we looked closer, we saw a horse with one win in a maiden special and an uninspiring third-place finish in a pokey Wood Memorial.


Classic Empire (inside),  udner Julien Leparoux, holds off Not This Time (10), under Robby Albarado, to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 5, 2016.


The Swami Says:

1.---Always Dreaming.  Trampled his competition in Kentucky at a slightly longer distance and came out of the race in fine fettle.  Runs near the front and stays out of trouble.  Clever trainer and savvy rider add to his wealth of blessings.  Has already proven he can handle an off track.  May be odds-on.

2.---Classic Empire.  Has the goods to challenge the favorite.  Needs a better start and a smart ride.  Can afford no mistakes and must stay reasonably close.  Current odds at 7-2.

3.---Lookin’ At Lee.  Doesn’t win much, but always close.  Could pick up the pieces if Always Dreaming falters.  Will be running at the end.   Likely to go off around 10-1.



If betting on horseracing is an art, it is an imprecise one, subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  Success or failure is often determined in the first split second of a race when the gates open and the hyped-up contestants choose their paths.  Or by the weather, which can not only cause slipping and sliding but can also deliver a heavy ration of mud to all but the frontrunning horses.  Or by a speed horse with no chance who decides to set a frantic pace and draws a contender into his web.  Or by a jockey who makes an unfortunate decision in the frantic heat of battle.

In the Kentucky Derby, we saw Classic Empire’s chances lost at the break when he was bounced around by horses forced inside after an errant break by Irish War Cry.  In the same race, we saw the rider of outsider Lookin’ At Lee take his horse to the faster going along a rail which was uncharacteristically void of traffic, then zip down the stretch to finish a surprising second after running a shorter distance than any horse in the race.  Things happen in racing which are difficult to anticipate.  A heavy favorite gets up on the wrong side of the bedding.  A darkhorse decides to run the race of his life.  Gamblers pull their hair out at the frustration of it all.

The best you can do is revert to common sense and hope for the best.  In the Preakness, there are two superior horses.  One of them, Always Dreaming, likes to run near the pace, which keeps him out of trouble.  The other, Classic Empire, usually comes from further back, which can sometimes be a problem.  But maybe not so much of a problem in the Preakness with its 10-horse field as opposed to the cavalry charge of the 20-horse Kentucky Derby.  Also, trainer Casse may opt to stay closer from the get-go.  Barring health issues or the worst racing luck in the world, one of these two will win the race.  Lookin’ At Lee is not good enough to beat both of them on the same day.  Gunnevera, preferred by wise guys looking for a longshot, will be lucky to beat Lookin’ At Lee, let alone the Top Two.  Despite his clever connections, Cloud Computing doesn’t look ready for this kind of challenge.  If you’re looking for a longshot to crack the top three, take a gander at Conquest Mo Money, who was barely beaten by Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby.  He’s breaking from the outside post and has plenty of speed, enough to get the lead if he wants it.  The distance of the race will probably catch up with him sooner or later but a third-place finish is not out of the question.

Ladies and gentlemen, good luck with your selections.  Those cashing winning tickets will naturally be expected to mail us a pastry.




That’s all, folks….