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story.lead_photo.caption The Associated Press GAME PLAN: Trainer Mark Casse, right, talks with jockey Julien Leparoux while watching horses work out at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on Wednesday. Leparoux rides the Casse-trained Classic Empire, last-out winner of Oaklawn Park's Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, in Saturday's race. - Photo by The Associated Press

Classic Empire had a bumpy ride back to Churchill Downs, where his career began, but never fell off the road to the Triple Crown.

Last year's male juvenile champion is the 4-1 program favorite for the 143rd Kentucky Derby. Classic Empire drew post 14 among 22 entered in Saturday's mile-and-quarter classic for 3-year-olds. Royal Mo and Master Plan are also-eligibles and either would break from the outside post if able to draw into the field, Royal Mo from post 19 and Master Plan from post 20 if both become eligible to run.

Linemaker Mike Battaglia made Classic Empire a slight favorite over Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming and Churchill Downs stakes winner McCraken, both 5-1. Classic Empire won last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park and Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland Race Course, adding a third Grade 1 victory in Oaklawn Park's Arkansas Derby April 15. In his first start since February, his training in Florida compromised by injuries, Classic Empire won the Arkansas Derby by a half-length over Conquest Mo Money going a mile and an eighth.

"I love being the favorite," trainer Mark Casse said early this week. "That doesn't bother me at all. We're happy to be where we are today given the last couple of months. Let's just enjoy the ride."

Photo by The Associated Press
The Associated Press ON CALL: Jockey Julien Leparoux celebrates after Classic Empire's victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Nov. 5 at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. Leparoux, who keeps the mount on Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire on Saturday at Churchill Downs, also has ridden Kentucky Derby starters Irap and State of Honor in recent weeks.

Justin Leparoux rides Classic Empire, a $475,000 yearling purchase of Tulsa, Okla., oilman John Oxley, whose Monarchos, trained by John Ward Jr., won the 2001 Derby. Casse has a second Derby starter in State of Honor, a 30-1 longshot who breaks from post six with Jose Lezcano aboard.

Casse said he was satisfied with his horses' post positions. No. 14 is "a good spot.," for Classic Empire, he said. "A couple of key contenders are outside of us, which is kind of nice. I love having State of Honor right outside Always Dreaming."

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, 0 for 15 in the Derby, sends out three horses with Oaklawn experience. In order of post position, from the rail out, Lookin At Lee (30-1) drew post one, Untrapped (30-1) post four and Hence (15-1) post eight. Lookin At Lee finished third in the Arkansas Derby with a weaving trip through the stretch, Untrapped finishing sixth after placing third in Oaklawn's Grade 2 Rebel March 18. Hence won an Oaklawn maiden race in January, then two races later took the Grade 3 Sunland Derby in New Mexico.

"I didn't want the one hole, but if any horse can handle the one hole in the Kentucky Derby, it's Lookin At Lee," said Asmussen, whose Kentucky Oaks hopeful Ever So Clever, last-out winner of Oaklawn's Grade 3 Fantasy, also drew the rail.

"With Untrapped, the four is a bit of a concern because Always Dreaming is just to his outside and he'll probably be the pace horse. The eight for Hence is one of the preferred spots statistically. I think, looking at the stats the last 20 years, the eight, 13 and 16 posts have produced the most in-the-money finishes."

Hence has Florent Geroux aboard. Untrapped (Ricardo Santana Jr.), the first Derby starter for Jonesboro owner Mike Langford, and Lookin At Lee (Corey Lanerie) drew into the field through rivals' defections.

Asmussen called Hence "sharp, very sharp," prompting the trainer to push the colt a little harder than the other two when they returned to the track Wednesday and galloped just more than one mile.

Grade 2 Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry is an early 6-1 choice from post 17. Rajiv Maragh rides from post 17 for Graham Motion, 2011 Derby-winning trainer of Animal Kingdom.

"Animal Kingdom was 16, so I can't be disappointed with 17," said Motion. "It can be done from out there. I'm happy enough with it.

The others are 15-1 or higher with Sonneteer, at 50-1, trying to become the first maiden winner of the Derby since Brokers Tip in 1933. Sonneteer finished second in the Rebel at 112-1 odds and fourth in the Arkansas Derby. Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, a three-time Derby winner, rides the Midnight Lute colt trained by brother Keith.

Always Dreaming (John Velazquez), Tapwrit (post 16, Jose Ortiz, 20-1) and Patch (post 20, Tyler Gaffalione, 30-1) represent Todd Pletcher and would give the trainer a record-tying 48 Derby starters if all go. Pletcher's only Derby victory came in 2010 with Arkansas Derby runner-up Super Saver, ridden by Hall of Famer Calvin Borel.

"I'd have liked to have been a little farther out (with Always Dreaming), but he won the Florida Derby from the four, so that says something. In the end, we're good with it," Pletcher said. Regarding Tapwrit from post 16, which has produced the Derby winner four times since 1995, "That's been a good starting spot in the past. We're glad to have it."

As for the one-eyed Patch getting post 20, "We're OK with it," Pletcher said. "There's nothing outside to bother him, so that's good. He's been a good gate horse and I don't see any problems. I'd rather have it than the one."

Hence, Sonneteer and Patch are owned by historic Calumet Farm of Lexington, Ky., which raced Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948) and saw Alydar (1978) finish second in all three races in epic battles with Affirmed.

Sports on 05/04/2017

Print Headline: Classic Empire 4-1 favorite, draws post 14 for Derby

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