John Clay

Happy, healthy, Always Dreaming moves on to the Preakness

If not grinning ear to ear, Todd Pletcher was a happy camper Sunday morning.

“I think it’s starting to sink in,” the trainer said of Always Dreaming winning the Kentucky Derby.

Vincent Viola couldn’t help but smile.

“The horse ate up this morning like there’s no tomorrow,” said the owner of the NHL’s Florida Panthers, who with Brooklyn Boyz Stable is majority owner of the horse.

Anthony Bonomo thinks there must be something wrong with you if you’re not smiling.

“You’re not going to believe this,” said Viola’s partner and a fellow New Yorker, “but my favorite part of the sport is to be here at 5:30 in the morning in the barn with these horses.”

It wasn’t 5:30 a.m., thank goodness, but a couple of hours later. And by all reports at Barn 40 on the backside at Churchill Downs, all was well and then some after Always Dreaming’s 2 3/4-length victory Saturday in the 143rd Run for the Roses on a sloppy.

A trainer who has often skipped the Preakness in the past, Pletcher reported that he would send Always Dreaming to Baltimore in the early part of the week. There, the son of Bodemeister will settle into the traditional stall reserved for Derby winners and gallop up to the May 20 running of the Triple Crown’s second jewel.

Pletcher has been down this road before. He won the Kentucky Derby in 2010 with Super Saver over a sloppy track, only to see the WinStar colt fade to eighth in the Preakness.

“Every case is a little different,” Pletcher said. “My biggest concern with Super Saver, he had a tremendous three weeks between the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby. The two weeks he had between the Derby and the Preakness, I wasn’t seeing the same aggressiveness I was normally seeing from him in his gallops, so I think the two-week turnaround hurt him. We’ll see what the next couple of weeks have for Always Dreaming, but the initial impression is good.”

Super Saver won the Derby at odds of 8-1. Always Dreaming was the betting favorite on Saturday, going off at 9-2. After trouncing the Grade I Florida Derby field by 5 lengths, then giving his handlers some anxious moments at Churchill Downs with his energy, the colt ran a textbook race Saturday, stalking the leader, taking control near the stretch, then pulling away for the victory.

“He handled thee racetrack really well,” Pletcher said. “It didn’t appear to be a gut-wrenching race for him.”

So how good is Always Dreaming? Since coming to Pletcher from previous trainer Dominick Schettino, the colt bred by Mike Ryan and Gerry Dilger of Santa Rosa Partners has won four races by a combined total of 23 1/4 lengths. Saturday was only his second race in stakes company. That lack of experience some thought might hurt him in the Derby could turn be a plus when faced with the grind of trying to win three Triple Crown races over six weeks.

“I hope so,” Pletcher said. “Part of our strategy was to get to the Derby with a fresh horse. I think by taking the conservative route that we did with the Tampa maiden, and the (allowance race) instead of the Fountain of Youth, and then the Florida Derby, got us here with a fresh horse. I was impressed by the way he came out of it this morning, but two weeks is a quick turnaround.”

It was too quick last year for Nyquist, the sixth Derby winner in the past 10 years to come up short in Baltimore. It wasn’t too quick for I’ll Have Another in 2012, California Chrome in 2014 or American Pharoah in 2015. The Belmont wasn’t too quick or too long for American Pharoah. Whether Always Dreaming is in that category remains to be seen.

There should be considerable interest, however. NBC reported that overnight ratings for Saturday showed the second-highest numbers (10.5) in the past 25 years.

Said Pletcher, “We’ll see what happens.”

Preakness Stakes

When: Saturday, May 20

Where: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore

Last year’s winner: Exaggerator

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