The first time the horses came around the grandstand in Saturday’s 142nd Preakness Stakes, Todd Pletcher knew.
He could see it. And he what he saw wasn’t good. Yes, Always Dreaming, the horse he trained, the horse that won the Kentucky Derby so impressively just two weeks back, the horse that entered the gate the 6-5 favorite in this second jewel of the Triple Crown, might have been in front of the 10-horse field, but he wasn’t leading.
“He was there,” Pletcher said, “but it wasn’t like he was dragging Johnny (Velazquez, the jockey) there.”
And by the second time in front of the grandstand, Always Dreaming was nearly nowhere to be found, a well-beaten eighth before an announced crowd of 140,327 on a cool, cloudy day at Pimlico Race Course.
Cloud Computing, a 13-1 shot trained by Chad Brown and owned by a hedge fund manager who grew up three blocks from Pimlico, passed Classic Empire in the stretch to win the $1.5 million Grade I race by a head.
A stunning, upset win. The dark bay son of Maclean’s Music was the first horse to not run in the Kentucky Derby — making him a so-called “new shooter” — and win the Preakness since the filly Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
And by putting $28.80 to win, $8.60 to place and $6.00 to show in wallets, Cloud Computing rewarded his faithful with the biggest winning payout in a Triple Crown race since Mine That Bird returned $103.20 for his stunning 2009 Kentucky Derby victory.
Runner-up Classic Empire paid $4.40 and $4.00. Senior Investment, winner of Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes and trained by Lexington’s Kenny McPeek, finished third and paid $10.20 to show.
Oh, and one more thing, Always Dreaming’s Preakness showing was the worst by a Kentucky Derby winner since Super Saver also ran eighth in 2010. Who was Super Saver’s trainer? That, too, was Pletcher.
“I think the turnaround was a little too quick,” said Pletcher of the two-week interval between Derby and Preakness. “He ran so hard in the Derby and today just wasn’t his day.”
Most believed if it wasn’t another happy day for Always Dreaming, it would be a statement day for Classic Empire, the two-year-old champion and Arkansas Derby winner, who did well to squeeze a fourth-place finish out of a bumper-car trip two weeks ago at Churchill Downs.
Wednesday’s Preakness draw placed the rivals side-by-side in the starting gate — Always Dreaming in the No. 4 post position; Classic Empire at No. 5. While handicappers figured the duo would be targeting each other early, they believed surely another horse would show speed and go for the lead. Conquest Mo Money was the logical choice.
That didn’t happen, however. The Arkansas Derby runner-up was ninth at the start. Unlike in the Kentucky Derby, when he stalked leader State of Honor from second, this time Always Dreaming was first. To his outside sat Classic Empire for a first half-mile that was quick but not crazy at :46.81 seconds and a reasonable three-quarters in 1:11.00.
Always Dreaming still led by a head at the point in the second turn when Classic Empire made his move to take the lead. Even that wasn’t right. Empire jockey Julien Leparoux said afterward he didn’t really want the lead at that point but was forced to go by the feel that Always Dreaming was beginning to falter.
Falter he did. Badly. No longer in front, Dreaming collapsed to sixth in the stretch and by the wire had beaten only Hence and Term of Art. Classic Empire faltered as well, his three-length lead swallowed up by Cloud Computing who won at the wire.
“I know his mind tends to wander and I was a little worried about that,” said Mark Casse, Classic Empire’s trainer, of what transpired in the stretch. “I was hoping (Cloud Computing) came at him earlier. He tried to kick back, but we were second-best today.”
It was the first win in a Triple Crown race for Brown, the 2016 Eclipse Award winner, who decided to point his lightly-raced colt — Saturday was just Cloud Computing’s fourth career start; his first since a third-place finish in the Wood Memorial on April 8 — away from the Kentucky Derby and toward the Preakness.
It also marked a happy homecoming for Baltimore native Seth Klarman, president of the Baupost Group, who owns the horse along with Meridan Capital Partners CEO William Lawrence.
“I came to the Preakness many, many times,” Klarman said. “I never imagined I’d own a horse let alone be the winning owner of the Preakness.”
After hearing Pletcher report how well his Derby winner had trained leading up to the Preakness, few could have imagined Always Dreaming would produce such a dud at Old Hilltop.
“(Velazquez) said he felt like turning up the backside, he didn’t have quite as much horse underneath him as he expected or was hoping to have,” Pletcher said. “He was trying to bide his time as long as possible. Classic Empire turned up the pressure in the middle of the turn and he didn’t have a whole lot to offer.”
He added: “We’ll savor the Derby victory.”
6:50 p.m. Saturday, June 10, at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. (NBC-18)