LAS VEGAS--Pimlico is a pretty quiet place right now, quite the opposite of what it will be next Saturday. And that is just fine with Todd Pletcher.
After Always Dreaming looked jittery at times in the build-up to his Kentucky Derby victory, Pletcher wrote it off to the beehive of activity during the busiest week of the year at Churchill Downs.
So instead of staying there or shipping to his home base in New York, the Hall of Fame trainer got Always Dreaming out of Louisville and into Baltimore on Tuesday – a week-and-a-half ahead of next Saturday’s $1.5 million Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.
“Generally there’s not a lot of horses training there,” Pletcher said. “I think it’ll be a quiet environment. Give us time to get him settled in. If we need to made any adjustments we’ll have time to do that.”
As expected Always Dreaming is the early favorite to win the Preakness and take a Triple Crown bid to the Belmont Stakes next month. At Wynn Las Vegas he is odds-on at 10-to-11. After finishing a hard-luck fourth at the Derby, Classic Empire is the second choice at 7-to-2 followed by newcomer Royal Mo at 9-to-1 and long-shot Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee at 10-to-1.
Pletcher rolled into Baltimore a day after Always Dreaming, applying the lessons he learned the only other time he brought a Derby winner to the Preakness. That was seven years ago, when Super Saver finished only eighth, the worst result for a Derby winner that finished the Preakness since 1970.
If he had it to do over again Pletcher said he would not have breezed Super Saver in a full workout between the Derby and the Preakness. It is one reason why he will not do that again with Always Dreaming this weekend. So is the short, two-week break between races.
“It definitely makes the decision easy not to feel like we need to breeze him in between,” Pletcher said Thursday in a conference call with racing reporters. “It is a quick turnaround, and sometimes you don’t know how horses are going to respond to that until you get into the stretch of the race. That’s when you really find out what they have left in reserve.”
Typically close to the vest with his comments and closer with his feelings, Pletcher sounded as upbeat as he ever does after he put Always Dreaming through a 1¼-mile gallop Thursday morning at Pimlico, free of the antsiness the colt showed in morning runs at Churchill Downs.
“We like what we’re seeing so far,” he said. “All the indications are he’s bounced out of the race quickly. But sometimes you don’t know until you’re in the heart of the battle if they’ve got that extra reserve. We’re hoping so.”
So far 11 rivals are committed to challenging Always Dreaming next weekend, including seven “new shooters” that were not in the Kentucky Derby. No fewer than six of the colts are closers. The front-end pace is likely to come from Arkansas Derby runner-up Conquest Mo Money (14-to-1), European import Lancaster Bomber (22-to-1) – and Always Dreaming.
“I’m interested to see where Always Dreaming draws,” said Ken McPeek, who trains deep-closing Lexington Stakes winner Senior Investment. “Circumstances can change just in the draw. Sometimes you think there’s not going to be any pace and there’s tons. Sometimes it looks like there’s a whole lot and there isn’t any at all. It’s going to depend on how post positions draw out.”
Hoping for a mulligan from a rough Derby trip that saw his horse bottlenecked at the start, trainer Norm Casse is confident the pace will set up nicely for Classic Empire.
“Of course I thought the Derby was going to set up nice for us,” Casse said. “In my mind I thought we would be laying fourth or fifth, and after the start we were 13th going into the first turn. Obviously there are not going to be as many horses (in the Preakness). A lot of it will depend on how Always Dreaming breaks and how Johnny (Velázquez) will maneuver him around. I would think that there’s going to be a fairly fast pace, and I would like to be sitting right behind them.”
History shows that 30 of the last 33 Preakness winners had run two weeks earlier in the Derby; the theory is that if the new shooters were so good, they would have been racing in Kentucky. But history also shows that non-Derby runners have hit the board to finish in the top three in 12 of the last 14 runnings of the Preakness.
Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens, 54, was denied a Derby ride when Royal Mo did not draw into the field as the first alternate, waiting for a scratch that never came. But they are in the mix for the Preakness, which Stevens has won three times.
“I’m pretty excited,” Stevens said. “With what I saw on Derby week back there I saw a colt that was a lot more in tune with things. I’m disappointed (not being in the Derby), but who’s to say that the extra two weeks isn’t going to be a blessing at the end of the day?”
Here are the odds for the Preakness as posted Thursday evening at Wynn Las Vegas:
- Always Dreaming 10/11
- Classic Empire 7/2
- Royal Mo 9/1
- Lookin At Lee 10/1
- Gunnevera 12/1
- Cloud Computing 12/1
- Conquest Mo Money 14/1
- Hence 14/1
- Multiplier 15/1
- Lancaster Bomber 22/1
- Senior Investment 25/1
- Term Of Art 30/1
The Preakness field will be drawn Wednesday at Pimlico.
How to clean up the start of the Derby
Reducing the size of the Kentucky Derby field from a maximum of 20 is seen as a nonstarter that Churchill Downs would not consider unless something cataclysmic were to happen.
So is there another way to prevent the crush of horses that injured McCraken and Classic Empire last week and ruined Classic Empire’s chances of winning the race?
“As rough as the Derby was this year I’m afraid that something is going to happen,” Stevens said. “Mike Smith said it was the roughest – by far – Derby that he had ever ridden in, and we’ve both ridden in some rough Derbies, so I’ll take his word for that. It’s refreshing to know we’re going into Baltimore with a limit of 14 horses.”
One suggestion getting new traction is for Churchill Downs to use a single, 20-stall gate rather than two sets of gates that created the gap that was filled fast by horses angling in from the outside, auxiliary gate. Casse claimed that the gap is 13½ feet.
“With normal gates, when a horse goes left to right, there is no room for momentum,” Casse said. “They have no room to fall. They kind of keep each other up. In this case there was so much room that it was like having a running start to hit (Classic Empire). When he came back (jockey Julien Leparoux) said ‘I don’t know how we stayed up.’”
Stevens said the situation was made worse, because the gates were not properly aligned, something that appeared to be confirmed by the overhead view shown on NBC Sports.
“It looked like to me that the outside horses were being forced to point (inward),” Stevens said.
The 20-horse limit has been in place for the Derby since 1975, the year after a record-field of 23 started the race.
Always Dreaming followed recent analytics
With his win in the Kentucky Derby, Always Dreaming maintained two winning trends that have been established over the past quarter-century or so.
He was the 25th winner in the last 28 runnings to have checked at least one of the boxes in the Final Fractions Theory discovered by long-time Louisville turf writer Jennie Rees. That would be either a time of 13.0 seconds or less for the last furlong of the winner’s final prep race before the Derby or 38.0 seconds for the last three furlongs. Always Dreaming actually answered yes to both in his Florida Derby victory last month, making him the 21st Derby winner in the last 28 to answer yes to both the 13.0 and 38.0 questions.
Always Dreaming was also the 24th winner in the last 26 years to have had a Beyer Speed Figure of at least 95 coming into the Derby; he had a 97.
Lightly raced colt is Peter Pan favorite
In only his third race Timeline is the 2-to-1 morning-line favorite to win Saturday in the Grade 3 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park in New York, a traditional prep for next month’s Belmont Stakes.
Trained by Chad Brown, the 3-year-old colt sired by Hard Spun won an $80,000 optional-claiming race by 13 lengths last month at Aqueduct and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 101. Ridden by Javier Castellano, he is making his stakes debut in the nine-furlong race worth $200,000.
Master Plan, the second alternate to last week’s Kentucky Derby, is the 2-to-1 second choice on the morning line. Sired by Twirling Candy, trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by John Velázquez, he will be in his first race since finishing third at the UAE Derby in Dubai seven weeks ago. Master Plan turned in a bullet work of 48 1/5 seconds over four furlongs at Churchill Downs the morning after the Kentucky Derby.
Only six horses are set to start the race that most recently spawned a Belmont Stakes winner three years ago with Tonalist. Post time for the Peter Pan is Saturday at 3:04 p.m. EDT.