After he endured hoof and back injuries and a reluctance to train, things are looking up for Classic Empire.
The bay colt was made the early 4-1 favorite for the Kentucky Derby on Wednesday, with just four of the 20 horses listed at single digits in a wide-open race.
Classic Empire was idle for three months after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and being named 2-year-old champion last year. He made his 3-year-old debut with a third-place finish in the Holy Bull Stakes in February. Then came two more months off, and twice during that time, the colt didn’t want to train.
“It’s been a crazy road, but we’re right where we want to be,” trainer Mark Casse said.
Classic Empire restored Casse’s confidence in him by delivering a half-length victory in the Arkansas Derby in mid-April.
“With the average horse you couldn’t do what we have done,” Casse said. “You need so many things to go right and the good news with this horse is he’s so talented he can overcome a lot.”
Classic Empire will break from the No. 14 post on Saturday. Just two horses have won the Derby from there. The last was Carry Back in 1961.
Classic Empire’s sire, Pioneerof the Nile, finished second in the 2009 Derby.
“We couldn’t be in a better place right now,” Casse said.
Recent history is on Classic Empire’s side, too. The favorite has won the Derby each of the last four years. It’s the longest such streak since the 1970s.
Always Dreaming and McCraken, a three-time winner at Churchill Downs, are co-second choices at 5-1.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Always Dreaming drew the No. 5 post, which has produced nine Derby winners, most recently California Chrome in 2014. Blue Grass Stakes winner McCraken will break from the No. 15 hole. The last of five winners from there was Triple Crown champion American Pharoah two years ago.
Casse is one of three trainers with multiple horses in the race. He also trains State of Honor.
Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen have three starters each. Pletcher is seeking his second Derby win from the trio of Always Dreaming, Tapwrit and Patch.
Asmussen has yet to win the Derby in his long career. He’ll saddle Lookin At Lee, Untrapped and Hence.
Irish War Cry is the fourth choice at 6-1 odds and drew the No. 17 post. No horse has ever won from there, but trainer Graham Motion was pleased.
“Being in the auxiliary gate keeps you in the clear, keeps you away from the craziness,” he said. “You don’t have to stand in the gate that long.”
The main starting gate holds 14 horses and has a six-stall auxiliary gate that is attached. Horses are loaded into the gate two at a time, beginning with posts one and 11, which spend the most time waiting for the start.
Four horses are listed at 15-1: Girvin, Hence, Gunnevera and Gormley.
Six horses are 20-1 shots: Lookin At Lee, Thunder Snow, Irap, J Boys Echo, Tapwrit and Practical Joke.
Lookin At Lee drew the dreaded No. 1 hole in the starting gate. His sire, Lookin At Lucky, had the same spot in 2010. He was the 6-1 favorite that year but was pinched at the start and got banged against the rail before finishing sixth.
There are even bigger odds for bettors who like extreme long shots. Untrapped, State of Honor, Battle of Midway, and Patch, the one-eyed horse, are all at 30-1.
Patch, whose left eye was removed because of infection, drew the No. 20 post on the far outside. He won’t be able to see the rest of the field to his left.
“He’ll get to see the crowd when he leaves there,” Pletcher said.
The longest odds in the field belong to Fast And Accurate and Sonneteer, both at 50-1. Fast And Accurate is part-owned by Olympic skier Bode Miller. Sonneteer has yet to win a race in his career. If he wins the Derby, he’d be the first maiden to do so since Brokers Tip in 1933.
Doug O’Neill, who trained last year’s winner Nyquist, is back with Irap.
A total of 22 horses were entered, two more than the maximum limit of 20. Also eligible are Royal Mo and the Pletcher-trained Master Plan, who would need defections by early Friday morning to get into the 1 1/4-mile race.
The owners of Fast and Accurate paid the $200,000 supplemental fee to make the colt eligible for the Derby and as a result, the other two Triple Crown races.
The extra money from Fast and Accurate’s supplemental entry raises the Derby purse to $2,395,800, if 20 horses start. It would be the second-richest purse in the race’s 143-year history, behind the $2,399,600 awarded in 2005. The winner would earn $1,635,800.