BALTIMORE — Imagine where we were 10 weeks ago. The Triple Crown campaign bore absolutely no resemblance to what we are experiencing this weekend here at Pimlico.
Always Dreaming’s name rolls off the tongue so quickly now. In just two minutes – 2:03.59 to be exact – he became household words by winning the Kentucky Derby. Now he is the 3-2 favorite to win today’s Preakness Stakes.
Now he carries horse racing’s hope to be the second Triple Crown champion in three years. But 10 weeks ago he was barely on the radar – with at least one notable exception.
“I bid on him for some other clients as a yearling,” his trainer Todd Pletcher said. “I saw him run at Belmont and Saratoga. We picked him up at the beginning of September (from trainer Dominick Schettino) and just felt like he wasn’t moving as well as he was capable of. So we sent him to Crupi’s Farm (in Florida) for a little break. He came back to us in November. I think that time off really did him a lot of good.”
Always Dreaming was then paired with Hall of Fame jockey John Velázquez and has not lost since, winning maiden and claiming races in Florida and convincing Pletcher that a shot at the Grade 1 Florida Derby was in order.
Where other 3-year-olds used two or three preps to pile up points needed to get into the Kentucky Derby, that April run at Gulfstream Park was essentially a do-or-die proposition for Pletcher. Needing to finish in the top two to get to Churchill Downs, Always Dreaming delivered an emphatic, five-length victory.
“Part of our strategy was to get to the Derby with a fresh horse,” Pletcher said. “I think by taking the conservative route that we did instead of the Fountain of Youth and then going to the Florida Derby, that got us (a Kentucky Derby victory) with a fresh horse.”
Now Pletcher leads the vanguard of trainers using the less-is-more strategy going into the Triple Crown – a plan that came into greater focus 10 weeks ago. That was when Mastery’s 6¾-length victory in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita made him the Kentucky Derby favorite – for all of 15 seconds.
Running out after the win Mastery cracked a condylar bone in his left front leg. A California dream of a Derby did was over in that instant.
“It was very emotional,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “The highest of highs and the lowest of lows within seconds.”
The Triple Crown picture took an immediate pivot. Before that race Mastery already had two graded-stakes victories to his name and was 8-1 at Wynn Las Vegas to win the Kentucky Derby. Always Dreaming meanwhile had yet to run his first stakes race and was still no better than 75-1.
Less than three weeks later another rising California star – Unique Bella – suffered a shin injury that took her out of consideration for Kentucky. At the time she was the even-money favorite in the future betting for the Oaks and widely considered a legitimate chance to take on the boys in the Derby.
All the while Pletcher was biding his time with an attitude that he has carried through Kentucky and into the Preakness, all the while trying to stay as much out of the harsh glare of the Triple Crown chase. After the Derby it was a simple case of sending Always Dreaming here to the relative calm of Pimlico right away.
“I’m pleased that we decided to come in early,” Pletcher said. “We got what we were looking for in terms of a quiet environment at least for that initial first week. We got him settled in and acclimated. We got a quiet setting on the racetrack. Those are the kind of things that we were looking for.
“We might have arrived here in the same condition had we stayed at Churchill. I just felt at the time that it was the correct move. Nothing that I’ve seen here would indicate that it wasn’t.”
Preakness day notebook
* Early betting Saturday at Pimlico has shaded toward second choice Classic Empire, the troubled, fourth-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby. Always Dreaming was still favored but went from 4-5 overnight to 3-2. Classic Empire was down to 2-1. Following were the track odds at 12:45 p.m. EDT:
1. Multiplier 18/1
2. Cloud Computing 15/1
3. Hence 20/1
4. Always Dreaming 3/2
5. Classic Empire 2/1
6. Gunnevera 10/1
7. Term Of Art 45/1
8. Senior Investment 25/1
9. Lookin At Lee 8/1
10. Conquest Mo Money 9/1
* The main track at Pimlico has been playing muddy for the first half of the Preakness day card. Heavy rain Friday, just before the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, turned the track from fast to sloppy. The track remained sealed overnight and it had not been harrowed by early afternoon. The weather forecast indicates no rain is coming, raising optimism that the track will be fast for the Preakness at 6:48 p.m. EDT.