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.”

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.