In the topsy-turvy world of Thoroughbreds, no two races are exactly the same, of course. Different horses for different courses, as they say. Pace makes the race. Variables abound.
Always Dreaming was so impressive in winning the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago, however, stalking the leader, executing a push-button move at the right time and rolling to an easy 2 3/4-length win, you wonder how anyone could doubt the son of Bodemeister for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.
I’m sure not. Given his perfect 4-for-4 record since arriving in Todd Pletcher’s barn, his dominating 5-length win in the Florida Derby and his flawless Kentucky Derby, Always Dreaming is 4-5 in the Preakness morning line for a reason.
Still, there’s plenty of support out there for Classic Empire, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Arkansas Derby winner and 3-1 Preakness second choice. Smashed at the start of the Derby, Classic Empire was forced to navigate a sloppy obstacle course before coming home fourth for trainer Mark Casse. He’s due for better racing luck.
And there is the cold hard fact that two Saturdays ago is not this Saturday. The Kentucky Derby was a mile and a quarter long. The Preakness is a mile and three-sixteenths. Baltimore’s Pimlico features tighter turns than those at Louisville’s Churchill Downs. While both races are on dirt tracks, the Pimlico surface is not identical to the Churchill surface. In fact, Pletcher predicted Friday that Saturday’s surface would be closer to the one Always Dreaming covered at Gulfstream Park on April 1 in winning the Florida Derby by 5 lengths.
And don’t forget the post positions. The two will break side-by-side from the starting gate. Always Dreaming has the No. 4 post. Classic Empire is at No. 5.
“I think that’s an ideal spot for Classic Empire,” admitted Pletcher this week.
“Todd’s horse rated outside in the Derby,” Casse said. “Now he has to do it from the inside.”
“I think they’re going to keep each other honest,” said Kenny McPeek, trainer of Lexington Stakes winner Senior Investment, who will be coming from off the pace Saturday. “If we get an honest pace, maybe they’ll come back to us.”
The 20-horse Kentucky Derby field was populated with plenty of stalkers, or “track-and-attack” horses as trainer Doug O’Neill dubbed them. Speed horses were in short supply. The 10-horse Preakness field appears short on cannonballs, as well.
“I think it’s about the same,” Pletcher said.
State of Honor, also trained by Casse, assumed pace-car status in the Kentucky Derby. The backside consensus at Pimlico seemed to tab Arkansas Derby runner-up Conquest Mo Money as most likely to love the early lead. After all, the Miguel Hernandez trainee sat second early in the Arkansas Derby before leading from three-quarters of a mile until he lost by just a half-length to the charging Classic Empire at the wire.
The Kentucky Derby’s key stretch was not the opening half-mile, run in a quick 46:53 seconds. The key stretch was the next quarter, which was run in a more modest 24.59 seconds. The pace didn’t collapse, but it definitely slowed, allowing Always Dreaming to maintain his cruising speed while keeping the closers at bay.
Can the planets align in the same fashion for Always Dreaming in the Preakness?
“One thing we do know,” acknowledged Casse, “Always Dreaming has one of the best riders in the world.”
That would be John Velazquez, who has never won a Preakness. But then Velazquez had never won a Kentucky Derby riding for Pletcher — he did win for Graham Motion aboard Animal Kingdom in 2011 — before two weeks ago, even though the two had teamed up for more than 1,600 victories together.
“When the gate opens, things can change,” said Pletcher.
When they hit the wire, however, it says here nothing will have changed from two weeks ago. Different race, same result.
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.
Purse: $1.5 million (Grade 1)
Distance: 1 3/16 miles
Favorite: Always Dreaming (4-5)
Preakness Stakes field
Wachtel Stable, George J. Kerr and Gary Barber
Klaravich Stables Inc. and William H. Lawrence
MeB Racing, Brooklyn Boyz, Teresa Viola, St. Elias, Siena Farm and West Point
John C. Oxley
Peacock Racing Stables
Term of Art
Fern Circle Stables
Lookin At Lee
L and N Racing
Conquest Mo Money
Judge Lanier Racing