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Trainer Casse not giving up on Classic Empire running in Kentucky Derby

Casse hopeful of Derby run for Classic Empire

Mark Casse hasn't given up on Classic Empire taking a run at the Kentucky Derby.

The champion three-year-old colt was treated last weekend for a back problem Casse figures came about after the horse developed a foot abscess following a third-place finish in the Grade 2 US$350,000 Lambholm South Holy Bull Stakes on Feb. 4 at Gulfstream Park. The son of Pioneerof the Nile was treated by an equine therapist Saturday then examined Sunday by Casse's vet.

On Monday, Casse was hopeful Classic Empire, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner and North American thoroughbred racing's top two-year-old last year, would resume training later this week.

"He's looking good," Casse said in a telephone interview. "We've had everything go wrong so far but if we can have everything go right from this point on we can still win the Kentucky Derby, there's no doubt in my mind.

"I haven't given up and honestly not once have I said, 'We're beat, we're not going to make it.' "

Classic Empire could run in the Grade 2 $1-million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes slated for Keeneland on April 8. But Casse cautioned Classic Empire's next race will come when he's fully healthy.

"Until we feel he's at his best we're not going to  run," Casse said. "The only promise I'm going to make is when he comes back, you'll see the real Classic Empire.

"If it takes a month, if it takes two months, if it takes a year, when you see him you'll see the real Classic Empire because he has shown how truly talented he is."

The American-owned and bred Classic Empire won four-of-five races last year and amassed earnings over $1.4 million. He capped the '16 season beating 5-2 favourite Not This Time by a neck in the $2-million Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

But the back ailment left Casse wondering if he somehow missed a sign Classic Empire was hurting.

"I feel like I let him down a little bit," Casse said. "But he's such a tough son of a gun that he didn't give us any indication his foot was bothering him.

"But if you saw it two days after the race, you would've seen how badly it was and you've got to know it was there in the race and that's probably why he acted and performed the way he did. Unfortunately, they can't talk . . . I think a normal horse would've given us enough indications that we wouldn't have run him but like I said, he's tough."

Ideally, Casse would've preferred to run Classic Empire in three prep events before heading to Churchill Downs in Lousville, Ky. But the eight-time winner as Canada's top trainer feels there's still plenty of time for Classic Empire to reach peak condition for the Derby on May 6.

"We deal with issues like this all the time," said Casse, a member of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. "Classic Empire probably was having some type of back spasms but unfortunately for a horse like him, when he does everybody in the racing world sees it.

"Every little thing he does is under such focus."

Casse also offered an update on Tepin, last year's Grade 1 $1-million Ricoh Woodbine Mile champion and North American racing's top female turf horse in 2015-16. The 2015 Breeders' Cup Mile winner missed last month's Grade 3 $150,000 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes with a stomach ailment but Casse said no decisions have been made regarding when the six-year-old will breeze.

"She's very happy right now but as I was telling someone recently, 'This is Tepin's world, we just live in it,'" Casse said with a chuckle. "There's no rush.

"This will be her last year, for sure, and we're not going to give her as hard a campaign as we did last year, probably three, four races and hopefully ending in at the Breeders' Cup."

And Tepin, affectionately dubbed "Queen of The Turf," has her share of fans.

"I got a very nice card from a young lady," Casse said. "There's a picture of (Tepin) running on the front and on the inside were four peppermints.

"And she wrote, 'Dear Tepin, hope you feel better. See you hopefully soon. Good luck at your next race. Hope you like the bag of peppermints.' That's really quite cute."

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press