Forget the Derby! Classic Empire healthy for Preakness run

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BALTIMORE —¬†Classic Empire has recovered nicely from his distressing race at the Kentucky Derby – and so have his handlers.

After being bumped and jostled early at Churchill Downs, Classic Empire finished a disappointing fourth. If that wasn’t bad enough, the bay colt emerged from the race with an inflamed right eye.

Now healthy and charging through his workouts, Classic Empire appears poised for a bounce-back performance Saturday in the Preakness.

“Everything about him is perfect. Truthfully, I think he’s doing better than ever,” said Norman Casse, son and chief assistant to trainer Mark Casse. “All signs show that he’s going to run a really good race.”

Click here to stream the 2017 Preakness Stakes on NBC Sports

Classic Empire ran a heck of race in the Derby, but the poor start provided him with too much of a deficit to make up against Always Dreaming, who sloshed through the mud to victory.

Starting in the No. 14 post, Classic Empire was a victim of a chain-reaction collision that began when Irish War Cry veered left into McCraken. Five horses were involved, none of which finished in the money.

Casse watched on TV in the paddock as the horrific event unfolded.

“In a race like the Derby, it’s so paramount to have a good position going into the first turn,” Casse said. “If you don’t, you do things you don’t want to do.”

With no other options, jockey Julien Leparoux took Classic Empire wide on the second turn in an effort to get back in the race. The horse rallied from 13th place to sixth in the stretch but couldn’t complete the comeback.

“He ran a great race to finish fourth and never quit on me,” Leparoux said. “Hopefully we get a cleaner trip at Pimlico.”

Speaking Tuesday outside the Pimlico Stakes Barn, Casse insisted the team has moved on.

“The Derby is a race we always want to win. It’s No. 1 on our bucket list,” Casse said. “But we haven’t really dwelled on it. We know our horse ran well and that there were other big races that go after, and this was the first one on the list, obviously. That’s all it’s been about.”

Classic Empire was an early favorite at the Derby, coming in with five wins in seven career races. He has more than $2.2 million in career earnings, and Casse expects to significantly increase that total this weekend.

For one thing, it won’t be as crowded in the starting gate.

“It’s always a fairer race. You don’t have 20 horses, you don’t have a bunch of horses that don’t belong in the race,” Casse said. “Things get sorted out a little bit more here at the Preakness.”

At the Derby, Todd Pletcher, trainer of Always Dreaming, conceded that “the start of the race compromised a number of horses.”

In the Preakness, Casse envisions a duel worthy of a Triple Crown event.

“What we’re hoping for,” he said, “is that they both get fair trips, they both are eyeing each other at the quarter-pole and they can sort it out down the lane.”

Tiger Roll wins Grand National in photo finish

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AINTREE, England — Tiger Roll won the Grand National Steeplechase in a photo finish over Pleasant Company as Irish horses dominated the world’s most famous steeplechase at Aintree on Saturday.

A 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) race was won by a matter of inches in the closest finish to the Grand National since 2012, when Neptune Collonges won by a nose.

Tiger Roll, a 10-1 shot, was leading by as much as 10 lengths in the long run to the line, but only just held off the fast-finishing Pleasant Company (25-1) to win a first prize of 500,000 pounds ($710,000).

“I did have a big fear,” said jockey Davy Russell, who won the race for the first time at his 14th attempt. “It would have been heartbreaking.”

The first four horses home in the National were from Ireland, including Bless The Wings (40-1) and Anibale Fly (10-1).

It was the second National victory for both trainer Gordon Elliott, who also won with Silver Birch in 2007, and owner Michael O’Leary, who had 2016 winner Rule The World. O’Leary is chief executive of budget airline Ryanair.

“We bought the horse as a pint-sized hurdler,” O’Leary said, “but he’s got a heart of a lion.”

Russell grew up dreaming of winning the National. As a child, he erected Aintree-style fences in his garden and pretended to ride a horse over them.

“I’ve won this race thousands of times (in my head),” Russell said. “But not like this.”

David Mullins, the jockey of Pleasant Company, said he thought he was well-beaten after jumping the next-to-last fence.

“Davy was going so much better than me,” Mullins said.

That seemed to be the case as the horses made it past the elbow in the run to the line, but Pleasant Company closed in as Tiger Roll faded. It was too close to call as they crossed the line and the 171st edition of the race required a photo finish to separate them.

Total Recall went off as the 7-1 favorite but fell.

 

Baffert: McKinzie won’t run in Santa Anita Derby

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) McKinzie will miss the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 because of an unspecified problem.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert confirmed the colt won’t run in the West Coast’s major prep for the Kentucky Derby due to an issue in one of his hind legs. X-rays and scans haven’t confirmed what it is.

Baffert said Saturday in Dubai that McKinzie is “definitely out,” according to multiple media reports. He says he’s being “very cautious.”

The colt edged Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes on March 10, but was disqualified and placed second for interference in the stretch.

McKinzie was 10th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 40 points for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. The colt won the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 9 and the Sham Stakes on Jan. 6.

Baffert was in the Middle East to saddle West Coast and Mubtaahij to second- and third-place finishes in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.