LOUISVILLE, Ky.--Look closely. A rivalry may have been born Saturday with a dream and a nightmare in the Kentucky Derby.
Always Dreaming got a nearly perfect ride from John Velázquez around the waterlogged track at Churchill Downs. He won by 2¾ lengths in an efficient performance worthy of a 9-to-2 favorite, finally giving Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher his second Derby winner.
“The first one’s special, but this one is just as good or even better,” Pletcher said on a chilly Sunday morning outside Barn 40. “We felt like we had a good chance, and we had some anxious moments during the week, but we were just happy to see him deliver the performance that we felt like he was capable of.”
Pletcher’s anxiety with a horse that was full of himself and overly frisky in morning gallops were nothing compared with the horrendous start for Classic Empire. He was crushed between horses at the start. A half-mile later he was stuck back in 13th place. But last year’s 2-year-old champion refused to yield, making up nine places to finish a hard-charging fourth – serving notice that the 3-year-old division is still up for grabs.
“I really want another shot at Always Dreaming,” Classic Empire’s assistant trainer Norman Casse said Sunday morning. “With the right trip we certainly can take him on, but the horse has got to be right to do that. We’ve got to wait a couple days before we make that type of decision.”
One glaring problem is that the colt ended up with the equine equivalent of a black eye in the melee out of the gate. Casse’s father – head trainer Mark Casse – said how the eye heals will determine whether Classic Empire lines up for the Preakness.
“Nobody has discussed anything with dad or (owner John) Oxley,” Norman Casse said. “I’m just saying realistically if he looks like his energy level is good, he’s eating well, I don’t see why we wouldn’t do it.”
The drama for Classic Empire goes beyond race day. Like Always Dreaming has for Pletcher, Classic Empire has had issues preparing for races. He refused to breeze during a scheduled workout on his way back from a hoof abscess and back trouble that sidelined him for two months during the Derby prep season.
Now, with so little time between the Derby and Preakness, a full-fledged workout is an option trainers often eschew in favor of less taxing jogs and gallops in the morning – and that may be good news for Classic Empire’s connections.
“It’s a little easier for a horse like that if he’s doing well enough to go on to the Preakness, because he’s hard to train,” Norman Casse said. “If he starts refusing to train – because that’s what he does – going on to the Preakness is easier because you don’t have to breeze him. You just train him up to the race.”
Pletcher concurred, especially as he hopes to keep Always Dreaming from getting as antsy at Pimlico as he was during the past week here in Louisville.
“We plan to take him to Baltimore soon, let him get settled in there and hopefully just gallop up to the Preakness,” Pletcher said. “The fact that he was so headstrong when he got here, I don’t think staying here for another week is going to be an advantage. At Pimlico generally there’s not a lot of horses training there. I think it’ll be a quiet environment. It’ll give us time to get him settled in.”
Pletcher made a number of adjustments to Always Dreaming’s workout regimen at Churchill Downs, notably the addition of draw reins to keep him focused and under control the last five mornings before the Derby.
“They go from the girth through the bit back to the rider’s hands,” Pletcher said. “Basically it keeps the horse’s head down, it gives a rider added leverage, and it keeps the horse framed up with his head down instead of up. We didn’t want him to be able to (go too fast) in his gallops leading up to the race. The draw reins give the rider more leverage, more control.”
Pletcher said he was leaning toward using the draw reins again when Always Dreaming does his track work at Pimlico.
While Always Dreaming is certain to go to the Preakness and Classic Empire is a definite maybe, some other Derby horses are also being aimed toward Baltimore.
Trainer Steve Asmussen said Lookin At Lee, the 33-to-1 runner-up Saturday, is probable for the Preakness – “definitely a possibility” – but that 11th-place Hence and12th-place Untrapped are question marks. “I don’t think Hence ran his race,” Asmussen said, saying he did not take well to the kickback and the slop.
Girvin’s trainer Joe Sharp hinted that the Preakness was a possibility after a troubled trip with Hall of Famer Mike Smith on board ended with a 13th-place finish. “Mike said I should run him back in the Preakness or the Belmont,” Sharp said Saturday night.
Derby horses ruled out of the Preakness include eighth-place McCraken. Trainer Ian Wilkes said Sunday morning that he got a puncture cut to his left-hind leg in the Derby chain reaction that began when Irish War Cry crashed into Tapwrit, who banged into McCraken, who cut off Classic Empire.
“We just have to make sure he doesn’t get an infection,” Wilkes said after applying wraps to McCraken’s hind legs. “He’s a very immature horse. We’ll wait and see where we’ll go next.”
Other Derby horses not expected in Baltimore include third-place 40-to-1 long shot Battle Of Midway, fifth-place Practical Joke, ninth-place Gormley, 10th-place Irish War Cry, 16th-place Sonneteer, 18th-place Irap, 19th-place State Of Honor and Thunder Snow, the UAE Derby winner that did not finish after he appeared to get spooked at the start of the race (“We are totally dumbstruck at what’s happened,” Thunder Snow’s exercise rider Daragh O’Donohoe posted on Twitter.).
One definite new shooter in the Preakness will be Royal Mo, the first alternate for the Derby that never made it to the track in the afternoon. “Royal Mo will ship to Baltimore on Tuesday,” trainer John Shirreffs said. “Gary Stevens will ride him in the Preakness.”
As it stands, then, the headliners for the Preakness figure to be Always Dreaming, Lookin At Lee and, as long as his eye heals, Classic Empire. His big finish stamped him as the biggest hurdle between the Kentucky Derby winner and a shot at the Triple Crown next month in the Belmont Stakes. If nothing else, Classic Empire’s impressive comeback Saturday was a loud-and-clear retort to bettors who dropped him from a morning-line favorite to a 6-to-1 third choice.
“We’re proud of this horse,” Norman Casse said. “That’s a tough, tough trip that he had yesterday. He had a tough winter. He’s a very special horse. I think he earned a lot more respect yesterday. We’re proud that the world kind of noticed.”
Redefining the terms ‘fast’ and ‘slow’
For the announced crowd of 158,070 at the Derby, the Derby went off on a track posted as “sloppy” on the tote board. On the TV screens around the track it said the same thing. “Sloppy.”
Churchill Downs officials were all set to put the words “sloppy - sealed” on the charts when the folks at Equibase – the chronicler of racing records – made the bewildering decision to declare the track to be “wet fast.” Apparently that is how it will show up on past performances going forward – making the Derby performances misleading to future bettors who may have missed or may yet forget the details of the race.
“Equibase’s policy for its chart callers is to record the track condition based on their observations,” said spokeswoman Rhonda Norby. “It typically aligns with what the track has posted, but it’s not unusual for it to be different. The finish times of the races being run were preteyt fast for a sloppy track, and with the off-and-on rain we felt ‘wet fast’ was more accurate than ‘sloppy.’”
However, the winning time in the derby was a pedestrian 2:03.59, only the 65th-fastest in Derby history. It is just the latest confounding chapter in the logging of track conditions by Equibase, which had not responded yet to a midday request Sunday for an explanation.
Just look at Thunder Snow’s past performances. His win in the UAE Derby is listed as having been on a “fast” track when in fact it was rain-affected. The Daily Racing Form and its British equivalent Racing Post listed it as “muddy.” In truth it was probably closer to “wet fast” than the dirt was Saturday here in Louisville.
These debates over track conditions are nothing new. Eight years ago I was covering the Arlington Million, and the tote board showed the turf course was “good,” but Equibase insisted on reporting it as “yielding.” My argument with the Equibase chart man that day over maintaining consistent information for horseplayers fell on deaf ears.
Just four months ago I watched a televised race from Laurel Park being run in the snow with a frosty covering on the dirt track. With the horses making hoof prints in the snow, I was astonished to see the track was labeled as “fast.”
Let this be a caveat to bettors looking back on these races. So should a study of Always Dreaming’s winning time, which in fairness to Equibase was not that bad when compared with recent years. California Chrome was 0.07 seconds slower on a legitimately fast track three years ago. Pletcher’s first winner – Super Saver – plodded home in 2:04.45 on a sloppy track in 2010.
Perhaps the most apt comparison comes when laying Always Dreaming’s performance against Go For Gin’s rain-soaked victory in 1994, when he was on the lead for nearly the whole race. Noting that Always Dreaming was never more than a length off the lead Saturday, it is more than just a coincidence that Go For Gin was only one one-hundredth of a second slower in winning his Derby.