I was not a believer in Always Dreaming before the Kentucky Derby. But I am now. After what I saw in the Run for the Roses, I am expecting Always Dreaming to win the Preakness Stakes this Saturday.
Here are my selections for the Preakness:
- Always Dreaming
- Classic Empire
- Lookin At Lee
- Conquest Mo Money
One of the principal reasons I’m picking Always Dreaming to win the Preakness is he started in the Kentucky Derby. When I am deciding who to pick in the Preakness, I make it a practice to toss out all those who did not run two weeks earlier in the Derby. That’s because only three of the last 33 Preakness winners (Red Bullet in 2000, Bernardini in 2006 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009) did not start in the Derby.
Five of this year’s Preakness entrants ran in the Derby -- Always Dreaming, Lookin At Lee (who finished second), Classic Empire (fourth), Gunnevera (seventh) and Hence (11th). In light of what has happened during the last two decades, it will be a big surprise to me if someone other than one of these five wins the Preakness. And of the five, I think Always Dreaming has the best chance to get the job done this Saturday.
I also am going with Always Dreaming this Saturday because so many Kentucky Derby winners also have been victorious in the Preakness during the last two decades. A horse has won both races in 10 of the last 20 years.
Here is a look at the last 20 Preakness winners and their most recent race:
2016 Exaggerator (second in the Kentucky Derby)
2015 American Pharoah (won the Kentucky Derby)
2014 California Chrome (won the Kentucky Derby)
2013 Oxbow (sixth in the Kentucky Derby)
2012 I’ll Have Another (won the Kentucky Derby)
2011 Shackleford (fourth in the Kentucky Derby)
2010 Lookin At Lucky (sixth in the Kentucky Derby)
2009 Rachel Alexandra (won the Kentucky Oaks)
2008 Big Brown (won the Kentucky Derby)
2007 Curlin (third in the Kentucky Derby)
2006 Bernardini (won the Withers)
2005 Afleet Alex (third in the Kentucky Derby)
2004 Smarty Jones (won the Kentucky Derby)
2003 Funny Cide (won the Kentucky Derby)
2002 War Emblem (won the Kentucky Derby)
2001 Point Given (fifth in the Kentucky Derby)
2000 Red Bullet (second in the Wood Memorial)
1999 Charismatic (first in the Kentucky Derby)
1998 Real Quiet (first in the Kentucky Derby)
1997 Silver Charm (first in the Kentucky Derby)
Always Dreaming, trained by seven-time Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher, has demonstrated that he is a talented equine athlete. The Kentucky-bred colt not only possesses tactical speed, which enables him to make his own dream trips, he’s also amendable to rating, as was the case in the Derby. All in all, Always Dreaming seems a terrific fit for the 1 3/16-mile Preakness.
We know the weather can change quickly and dramatically in Baltimore at this time of year. What if it does rain and the Preakness is run on a wet track?
Just two years ago, the track was fast throughout the day until it became a sea of slop for the Preakness after a late afternoon downpour. But the wet surface did not stop American Pharoah. He won by seven lengths while on his way to the first Triple Crown sweep in 37 years.
However, a wet surface most likely did stop Riva Ridge from winning the 1972 Preakness and a Triple Crown sweep. Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby by 3 1/4 lengths on a fast track, finished fourth as a 2-5 favorite in the Preakness on a sloppy track, then won the Belmont by eight lengths when back on dry land. Only the sort of weather that makes umbrellas important probably kept owner Meadow Stable, trainer Lucien Laurin and jockey Ron Turcotte from back-to-back Triple Crowns. Meadow Stable, Laurin and Turcotte collaborated to sweep all three races in 1973 with the great Secretariat.
Even if we do get a surprise wet track for this year’s Preakness, I will be surprised if Always Dreaming loses because of it, a la Riva Ridge. We all saw what Always Dreaming is capable of doing on a wet surface in the Derby.
But it’s not as if the sole reason Always Dreaming won the Derby is he is a wet-track specialist. He won the 1 1/8-mile Xpressbet Florida Derby on a fast track in the excellent time of 1:47 2/5 (or 1:47.47 in hundredths). It was the fastest final time in that race since Alydar’s 1:47 flat in 1978.
Since Alydar, these are the only Florida Derby winners to have posted a final time faster than 1:48 flat:
Swale (1:47 3/5 in 1984)
Holy Bull (1:47 3/5 in 1994)
Unbridled’s Song (1:47 4/5 in 1996)
Quality Road (1:47 3/5 in 2009)
Always Dreaming (1:47 2/5 in 2017)
To further put Always Dreaming’s terrific 1:47 2/5 Florida Derby clocking in perspective, it was just three-fifths of a second slower than Arrogate’s track record.
Despite the Kentucky Derby winner coming right back to post another victory in the Preakness in 10 of the last 20 years, a gaudy 50% win percentage, some people are concerned about the two weeks between races for a Pletcher trainee. It is no secret that Pletcher would much rather give a horse more time between races than two weeks.
Pletcher’s one previous Kentucky Derby winner prior to this year was Super Saver in 2010. The track for the 2010 Derby also was wet. When Super Saver returned to the racing wars a fortnight later in the Preakness, he finished eighth as the 9-5 favorite. This worries some regarding Always Dreaming and the Preakness.
But I believe it could be a huge help to Always Dreaming vis-a-vis the Preakness that he had more time between races going into the Kentucky Derby than Super Saver. The Preakness was Super Saver’s third race in five weeks, whereas it will be Always Dreaming’s third race in seven weeks.
I also think Always Dreaming has a much better chance to win the Preakness than Super Saver did because Always Dreaming quite probably is a much better horse than Super Super.
Always Dreaming goes into the Preakness having won all four of his starts at 3 by a combined 23 1/4 lengths. He was the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. Super Saver went into the Preakness having lost two of his three starts at 3, losing the Tampa Bay Derby and Arkansas Derby before winning the Kentucky Derby at 8-1.
Monday morning at Pimlico, with a brief display of rambunctious behavior prior to an uneventful 1 1/2-mile gallop, Always Dreaming stumbled slightly when he attempted to buck off exercise rider Nick Bush.
Fortunately, when Always Dreaming again galloped 1 1/2 miles Tuesday morning, there was no attempt to buck off Bush.
“I’m really, really pleased with the way he went this morning,” Pletcher told Pimlico publicity Tuesday. “Everything went very smoothly – good energy, good controlled gallop, just moving really well. It was, as they say, ‘exactly what we were looking for.’ It couldn’t have gone any smoother.”
I readily admit that when I learned that Always Dreaming tried to buck off his exercise rider Monday, it gave me the heebie-jeebies. That’s because of what Thunder Snow, my pick to win the Kentucky Derby, did in that race. After a tardy start, Thunder Snow started acting like bucking bronco. Rather than participate in the race, Thunder Snow was taken to the paddock after he tried -- unsuccessfully -- to buck off jockey Christophe Soumillon.
If my pick to win the Preakness, Always Dreaming, tries to buck off jockey John Velazquez during the race a la Thunder Snow in the Kentucky Derby, don’t be surprised if you hear that they had to put me in one of those jackets with the sleeves in the back.
CLASSIC EMPIRE CONSIDERED MAIN THREAT
The way I see it, Classic Empire is by far the biggest threat to Always Dreaming this Saturday.
Trained by Mark Casse, Classic Empire was voted a 2016 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male following his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park. To say all did not go well for Classic Empire during the early portion of 2017 would be an understatement. He finished third as a 1-2 favorite in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 4 in his first start of the year.
After the Holy Bull, Classic Empire had his training interrupted by a nasty foot abscess. He also underwent treatment for an apparent back injury. Twice, when he was supposed to have a workout at Palm Meadows in Florida, he dug in his heels and refused to go. Despite all of that, Classic Empire managed to win the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 15. But then he had more misfortune in the May 6 Kentucky Derby.
As you probably know, in the Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire nearly got knocked down shortly after the start. He was “hammered off stride,” according to the official Equibase chart. He reportedly emerged from the race with some superficial scrapes on his legs and a swollen right eye. All in all, I thought Classic Empire ran extremely well to finish fourth.
Something else that should be taken into consideration concerning Classic Empire and the Preakness is he traveled much farther than Always Dreaming and runner-up Lookin At Lee in the Kentucky Derby.
According to Trakus, Classic Empire “ran 75 feet farther than the winner and 90 feet farther than the second-place horse,” Casse said last week during a NTRA media teleconference.
Classic Empire finished 8 3/4 lengths behind Always Dreaming and six lengths behind Lookin At Lee
According to Trakus expert Pat Cummings, 8 1/2 feet equals one length. Using this formula, Classic Empire traveled approximately nine lengths farther than Always Dreaming and approximately 10 1/2 lengths farther than Lookin At Lee. And don’t forget that Classic Empire was “hammered off stride” shortly after the start.
“I mean, who’s to say he didn’t get the air knocked out of him, he got hit so hard” early, said Casse. “And he ran 75 farther than Always Dreaming. That’s what, nine lengths in just running farther. So, I feel pretty confident that given a level playing field we can give Always Dreaming a run for his money. The great thing about our sport is that everybody can think and believe what they want, but we get to prove it on the track. Maybe Always Dreaming will still beat him [in the Preakness], but we’re ready to take that shot.”
Would Classic Empire have won the Kentucky Derby with a good trip? Perhaps, but I’d say probably not, mainly because Always Dreaming’s performance was that good. But I do think that if Classic Empire would have had a better trip, he quite possibly would have finished second instead of fourth. I especially think this because Classic Empire was beaten by a margin of six lengths for second and traveled approximately 10 lengths farther than runner-up Lookin At Lee.
Trakus data can be very helpful. It was one of the reasons I loved American Pharoah to win the 2015 Preakness. American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby by one length, with Firing Line finishing second and Dortmund third. But according to Trakus, American Pharoah traveled approximately 3 1/2 lengths farther than Firing Line and approximately eight lengths farther than Dortmund.
In 2012, Trakus data was one of the many reasons I was confident that I’ll Have Another was going to win the Preakness. I’ll Have Another registered a 1 1/2-length victory in the Kentucky Derby while becoming the first horse to ever win from post 19. According to Trakus, I’ll Have Another traveled approximately five lengths farther than runner-up Bodemeister.
Even though I’ll Have Another had won the roses and traveled farther than Bodemeister, I’ll Have Amother was not the betting favorite in the Preakness. The 8-5 favorite was Bodemeister. I’ll Have Another was allowed to get away at 3-1, a very nice price for a Kentucky Derby winner.
In the Preakness, I’ll Have Another resolutely ran down Bodemeister in the stretch to win by a neck.
Five years after Bodemeister finished second in the Preakness as the favorite, his son Always Dreaming will be the favorite in this year’s renewal. It was Bodemeister’s fate to lose the Preakness to a rival who had traveled farther in the Kentucky Derby. Will the same thing happen to Always Dreaming this Saturday vs. Classic Empire? I certainly would not rule it out.
Lookin At Lee is attempting to follow in the footsteps of his sire, Lookin At Lucky, who won the 2010 Preakness. American Pharoah in 2014-15 and Lookin At Lucky in 2009-10 are the only horses to be voted Eclipse Awards as champion male 2-year-old and 3-year-old since Spectacular Bid in 1978-79.
As a 2-year-old, Lookin At Lee won the Ellis Park Juvenile last Aug. 6. Since then, however, he’s lost seven in a row. But keep in mind that during Lookin At Lee’s seven-race losing streak, he has finished fourth or better in six graded stakes races. He ran second in the Iroquois at Ellis, second in the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, fourth in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita, third in the Grade III Southwest at Oaklawn, third in the Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn and second in the Grade I Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
While I am not particularly bullish on Lookin At Lee’s chances to win the Preakness, I do view him as a candidate to get a minor award, as he has done so often.
As stated earlier, I make it a practice to toss out the Preakness entrants who were not participants in the Kentucky Derby. That being said, if a so-called new shooter is to win the Preakness, I’m thinking it will be Conquest Mo Money.
Conquest Mo Money, a son of 2010 Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male Uncle Mo, has finished first or second in each of his five career starts. He gave a good account of himself when he finished second, only a half-length behind Classic Empire, in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby. Conquest Mo Money also was the runner-up to Hence in the 1 1/16-mile Sunland Derby.
Among the new shooters, I will be surprised if Cloud Computing wins the Preakness. I say that because Cloud Computing finished second to J Boys Echo in the Gotham, then ran third when Irish War Cry won the Wood. I find it hard to get enthused about Cloud Computing this Saturday after Irish War Cry and J Boys Echo finished 10th and 15th, respectively, in the Kentucky Derby.