LAS VEGAS — He will not have to deal with traffic. He will not have to deal with mud. Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming should have a much clearer path to victory Saturday in the 142nd running of the Preakness Stakes.
The same may be said, though, of Classic Empire, last year’s 2-year-old champion that was crushed early and had a rough trip to finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby.
Always Dreaming drew post position 4 on Wednesday afternoon in the field of 10 and is the consensus 4-5 favorite to keep alive his chance to be the second horse in three years to win the Triple Crown. Classic Empire right next to him in gate 5 and is a 3-1 second choice on what is expected to be a dry track at Pimlico in Baltimore.
“I think it’s fine,” Always Dreaming’s trainer Todd Pletcher said right after the draw. “He (drew) 4 in the Florida Derby and 5 in the Kentucky Derby. He’s generally a very good horse away from the gate. We’ll just try to come away, establish some position and see what some other horses are doing.”
Rival trainer Mark Casse will be happy if Classic Empire is not mugged out of the gate as he was in the bottleneck of horses between the main and auxiliary gates at Churchill Downs. Casse believes the trip cost his horse a chance to hit the board.
“He ran 75 feet farther than the winner, 90 feet farther than the second-place horse,” Casse said. “He got wiped out at the start. I think it cost us a few placings at least. One can only speculate on what the outcome of the race would have been had he been given a clear trip.”
The post draw for the Preakness was not nearly the breath-holding exercise that it was for the Kentucky Derby. A smaller field has a way of separating the wheat from the chaff – and basic horse-racing strategy from undesired drama. As Casse said, “Ten less to wipe you out.”
But that is how the Preakness rolls. Years ago I used to say that if the Triple Crown races were the Brady sisters, then the Preakness would be Jan. But that was so 20th century.
In the new millennium the comparison is to the Dunphy kids. (If you have never watched 22-time Emmy winner “Modern Family” then I cannot help you.) The Kentucky Derby is Haley; more flashy with a lot of sizzle that leaves so many wondering why they did not get lucky. The Belmont Stakes is Luke; a lot of potential but unpredictable and prone to disappoint. The Preakness is Alex; the smart one that combines reliability with common sense.
This analogy stands the test of time when looking at the Eclipse Awards. Of the 20 Preakness winners since 1997, 16 went on to be voted U.S. champion 3-year-old of their gender. Over the same span only 11 winners from the Derby and three from the Belmont had the same distinction, and all but one of them – Animal Kingdom in 2011 – also won the Preakness.
This speaks to the fact that the Preakness rewards horses that are not being asked to test themselves over a significantly longer distance – and not being asked to take part in a 500-yard joust to the first turn. The 9½ furlongs either coming off the 10-furlong Derby or a nine-furlong prep are already in the range of most 3-year-olds that earn their place at Pimlico.
“The Preakness is usually a little more of a true-run race,” Casse told reporters at Pimlico on Wednesday. “We have the utmost respect for Always Dreaming; I think he’s one heck of a horse. We just want a fair shot at him. I’m not sure we can beat him, but we’re going to give it a try.”
The one testing element unique to this race is the mere two-week break after the Derby. Pletcher said it caught up with his only other Derby winner Super Saver, an eighth-place disappointment at 9-10 odds in the 2010 Preakness.
“The two-week turnaround was a little quick for him,” Pletcher said Wednesday. “He was eating well. He was acting well. But I wasn’t seeing the same energy level from him galloping. When he was really good he would be somewhat aggressive to gallop. He just wasn’t putting the same into his gallops as he was at Churchill prior to that. I’m not seeing that with Always Dreaming right now. I feel like he’s ready to go.”
He looked more than ready Monday, when exercise rider Nick Bush took him out for a gallop and experienced some Derby déjà vu with Always Dreaming again showing his ornery side.
“The first couple strides he tried to buck Nick off,” Pletcher said. “He kind of stumbled a little bit when he did it, but he got right back on his feet and after that it was a very smooth, energetic, good gallop. Similar to what we were doing at Churchill leading up to the Derby, we’re just trying to keep him on the ground until race time.”
The Preakness has a reputation for being a speed-favoring race on a course that has unusually tight turns. But as longtime writers like Mike Watchmaker of theDaily Racing Form have unceasingly pointed out, it is just not true.
Satellite photos of Pimlico reveal the turns are almost exactly the same as they are at Churchill Downs. And in the last 38 runnings of the Preakness, there have been only five winners that led from gate to wire. True, two of them came in the last four years – Oxbow in 2013 and American Pharoah in 2015. But the greater sample size shows this is the exception and not the rule.
The seven closers in this year’s field will be emboldened by the fact that five of the last 11 Preakness winners were horses that trailed by at least 2½ lengths after three-quarters of a mile, including 2006 winner Bernardini – five lengths back – and 2007 winner Curlin – 6½ lengths behind.
That leaves new shooter Conquest Mo Money to set the pace from the outside post, perhaps with Always Dreaming and Classic Empire.
“If we broke running we may be on the lead,” Casse said of Classic Empire. “He’s a very fast horse. I think Conquest Mo Money is going to show speed. As long as we get a clean break he’ll be up close.”
Following is the field for the Preakness with odds from the morning line, the Westgate Superbook and Wynn Las Vegas:
Post time for the Preakness is 6:48 p.m. EDT Saturday.
Royal Mo has surgery, stud career next
- After suffering a broken sesamoid in his right front leg Sunday at Pimlico, Royal Mo had surgery Monday that was called “successful” by trainer John Shirreffs. The would-be new shooter to the Preakness suffered the career-ending injury in a morning workout. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens was credited with saving the colt’s life by dismounting and holding the injured leg. Sired by Uncle Mo and winner of this winter’s Robert B. Lewis Stakes, Royal Mo’s will now go to stud.
- Recovering from a wound in his eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, McCraken is being pointed to the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs on June 17. Trainer Ian Wilkes said the 3-year-old colt by Ghostzapper is “doing fine” after suffering a puncture cut to his left hind leg in the crush of horses at the start of the Derby.
- State Of Honor faded fast after setting the early pace in the Derby, finishing 19th. Now the Canadian-bred colt is being pointed by Casse to Canada’s biggest race – the $729,000 Queen’s Plate on July 2 at Woodbine near Toronto. Casse is an Indiana native who has been Canada’s top trainer eight times.
- Thoroughbred owner Kaleem Shah cannot seem to find a trainer to his long-term liking. In less than five months Shah has transferred horses from Bob Baffert to Doug O’Neill to Simon Callaghan. Among them were the now-retired San Vicente winner Iliad. Everyone involved has avoided comment.
- My theory on why favorites have won the last five Kentucky Derbies: It is no coincidence that this has happened since a points system based on designated prep races was established to fill the Derby field. Sprints are not on that list of races, therefore sprinters do not get into the race like they did when purse money was the measuring stick. The Derby field without sprinters is not stretched by a hot pace anymore, making it less likely for long-shot closers to win.
- Credit to Gary Dougherty of Issaquah, Wash., for correcting an error written here during our Derby coverage. It turns out that this is the first time ever that five consecutive favorites have won the Derby. A Churchill Downs list says that six straight favorites had won from 1891 to 1896. But Dougherty pointed out that 1892 winner Azra was 3-2 while the only two other horses – Huron and Phil Dwyer – were a co-owned, coupled entry with odds of 11-20. So technically Azra was the long shot.
- The Peter Pan may be a traditional prep for the Belmont Stakes. But this year’s winner Timeline will not be there. “I’m not interested in running the horse in the Belmont,” trainer Chad Brown said. “He doesn’t strike me as a 1½-mile horse.” An odds-on favorite Saturday, Timeline stalked the lead into the stretch before outdueling Meantime to win the Grade 3 Peter Pan in the Belmont Park slop. Brown said his undefeated colt sired by Hard Spun may head to the $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in late July.
- Looking ahead to Europe’s biggest race, keep an eye on Zhukova. The 5-year-old mare beat the boys Saturday at Belmont Park, winning the rain-soaked Grade 1 Man O’ War Stakes. Irish trainer Dermot Weld used the race on yielding turf as a tune-up to the $5.46 million Grade 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, which will be run in October in France. Bred by Weld’s late mother, Zhukova is 20-1 in European Arc markets with reigning British and Irish Champion winner Almanzor favored at 9-2.