John Clay

Preakness Stakes looks a two-horse race between Always Dreaming and Classic Empire

Saturday’s 142nd running of the Preakness Stakes figures to boil down to a dazzling duel of equine supremacy. It will be a heavyweight bout pitting championship contenders. A match race at Old Hilltop. Let the best colt win.

“This is not a two-horse race,” trainer Mark Casse claimed in the bright sunshine that bathed the Pimlico backside Thursday morning. “There are some other nice horses in there.”

Well, yes, but by far the nicest appear to be the Todd Pletcher-trained Always Dreaming, winner of the Kentucky Derby, and the 4-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday, and the Casse-trained Classic Empire, reigning juvenile champion and a 3-1 second choice for the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

“I watched Conquest Mo Money train this morning,” Casse said, referencing the Arkansas Derby runner-up. “He trained really well. I think he’s better than he looked on paper.”

There’s also Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee, Grade III Sunland Derby winner Hence, Grade II Fountain of Youth winner Gunnevera and Grade III Lexington Stakes winner Senior Investment, among others. All are at least 10-1 in the morning line, however. Four in the 10-horse field are at least 20-1.

“They’ll have to come with a game higher than they’ve showed so far,” Casse said.

They will if they want to challenge Dreaming, who is dominant when stalking the lead and running off with the Derby by 2 3/4 lengths, and Empire, who was slammed just out of the starting gate — “I don’t know how I stayed on,” jockey Julien Leparoux told Casse after the race — on the way to a fourth-place finish.

“That might have been the best race he’s ever run,” Casse said Thursday.

Yet, Always Dreaming was clearly the best two weeks back, and nothing since has made Pletcher think anything has changed. The son of Bodemeister has been full of himself in the mornings at Pimlico, maybe even too full. That was a potential problem at Churchill, but Pletcher turned it into a powerful plus on Derby Day. This week is following a similar storyline.

“His tank seems full,” Pletcher said Thursday. “We just hope to keep him on the ground one more day.”

Sticking point: The brisk two-week turnaround from Kentucky Derby to Preakness. Pletcher prefers longer layoffs, but he reports that Always Dreaming’s “energy level was immediately good” after the Derby and has trained well leading up to Saturday.

“I think I have a greater respect for Always Dreaming now,” Casse admitted.

Not that he has soured on his own star, who has three Grade I victories (Keeneland’s Breeders’ Futurity, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Arkansas Derby) to his credit. The Kentucky Derby was just a deflating dose of bad racing luck.

“Considering it was the biggest race in my 37-year career and it was over in 10 seconds, I thought I handled it pretty well,” Casse said Thursday.

Known to balk at going to the track some mornings, Classic Empire has been focused and happy in his Baltimore gallops, Casse said. When a media member mentioned that this would be Empire’s third race in five weeks — Arkansas Derby on April 15, Kentucky Derby on May 6 and Preakness on May 20 — Casse admitted that might be problem for a normal horse.

“This horse isn’t normal,” he said. “He’s a machine.”

They aren’t machines, of course. They are animals, and anything can happen on a given day. Come Saturday, however, it appears that this Preakness will be decided by its top two attractions.

Said Pletcher, “I want the race to get here. He’s doing so good, I want to keep him where he is.”

Said Casse, “I’d just love for him to be able to show his true talent.”

Let the best colt win.

142nd Preakness Stakes

What: Second leg of Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown

When: 6:48 p.m. Saturday

Where: Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md.

TV: NBC-18

Favorite: Always Dreaming (4-5)

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