Dreaming has Pletcher pumped up for Preakness
Kentucky Derby winner hot favourite for second leg of Triple Crown
Preview: USA, Saturday 11.48pm BST (live on ATR)
Pimlico: Preakness Stakes (Grade 1) 1m1½f | dirt | 3yo
Two weeks after he skimmed through the slop to record a convincing victory in the Kentucky Derby, Always Dreaming will start hot favourite to follow up in the 142nd edition of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on Saturday.
The Todd Pletcher-trained three-year-old is rated an odds-on chance by British bookmakers to claim the $1.5 million event at the historic Baltimore racetrack known colloquially as Old Hilltop, where a ten-runner field feature four horses he beat at Churchill Downs.
However, before anyone starts thinking the Preakness might be little more than a lap of honour before an inevitable Triple Crown bid at Belmont in three weeks' time, recent history offers just a note of caution for the hugely talented son of Bodemeister, who is unbeaten in four this year since joining Pletcher.
In 30 of the 33 runnings since 1983, the winner of the second leg of the Triple Crown has indeed been a horse who competed in the Kentucky Derby. But only 12 of those 30 actually won at Churchill Downs, giving rise to the likes of Lookin At Lee, a late-running second beneath the Twin Spires, and Classic Empire, rated the chief threat to Always Dreaming after being horribly compromised when he was cannoned into soon after the Derby break.
Ten of the last 12 Derby winners have been sent off favourite for the Preakness - often at a short price - but only four have won, although admittedly that figure includes three of the last five, among them American Pharoah and California Chrome.
On the plus side, the Pletcher camp seems to be exuding confidence – despite the two-week gap between the two Classics taking the trainer out of his comfort zone as he generally likes to give his horses a much wider spacing between races. His only previous Derby winner Super Saver, who scored in similar grisly wet conditions at Churchill Downs, flopped at Pimlico in 2010 when he was eighth behind Lookin At Lucky. Super Saver, though, was never rated in the same class as Always Dreaming, who will again be ridden by Pletcher's longtime sparring partner John Velazquez.
"The horse is doing unbelievably well in the two-week turnaround," said Pletcher. "The way he's moving, the way he's acting, the way he’s getting over the track, we feel really blessed that he's coming into the race this way. I’m someone who has been in a lot of races and lost a lot of races so I know you don't want to be overconfident, but I do feel very, very good about the way he's coming into it."
A notable feature of Always Dreaming's Derby preparations was a series of aggressive workouts before the race – too aggressive, worried some experts, although it did not seem to hurt the colt as he scored emphatically by two and three-quarter lengths.
He was bucking and kicking again upon arrival in Baltimore where there is a 40 per cent chance of rain on Saturday.
"Since we got to Churchill he had a little change in his personality, just in terms of how aggressive he became," Pletcher added. "We've seen a little bit of that here. Not quite as much as we did at Churchill. I think coming in here early helped us in that regard.
"What we're seeing out there gives us the same feel we were getting at Churchill. He's on it; he's feeling good. He's high-energy. Eating great. All of those things."
Always Dreaming is drawn in gate four, next door to last year's champion two-year-old Classic Empire (Mark Casse/Julien Leparoux), whose Kentucky Derby journey could hardly have been more difficult. Not only did he suffer an interrupted preparation, but then he was interfered with soon after exiting the starting gate and unable to adopt his customary prominent position. In the circumstances, he did well to finish fourth.
Also coming on from the Derby are Lookin At Lee (Steve Asmussen/Corey Lanerie) and stablemate Hence (Florent Geroux) plus Gunnevera, never a factor when seventh at Churchill Downs.
'Big Money' Mike Smith takes over on Gunnevera as trainer Antonio Sano's Venezuelan compatriot Javier Castellano is honouring a prior commitment to ride new shooter Cloud Computing for champion trainer Chad Brown.
Best of the other newcomers may be likely front-runner Conquest Mo Money (Miguel Hernandez/Jorge Carreno), runner-up to Classic Empire last time out in the Arkansas Derby. Drawn ten, the New Mexico-trained colt will need a good break from the outside gate.
What they say
Brendan Walsh, trainer of Multiplier
If he had broken his maiden a few weeks earlier, we probably would have run him in one of the Derby trials. His second dam had distance in her pedigree and even some steeplechase background. The other factor for sure is his temperament: he's so laidback. He just kind of takes his time and he kind of gets to rolling in the end part of his race.
Chad Brown, trainer of Cloud Computing
We always thought he had a lot of talent and I think he deserves a shot. Obviously, the Derby winner is really impressive and he's going to be hard to beat. But we're just looking to take our chance and hopefully he gets a good trip and it works out for him and he likes the surface at Pimlico. I think the six weeks between races will play into his favour.
Steve Asmussen, trainer of Hence and Lookin At Lee
We feel very good about both Hence and Lookin At Lee and their physical condition and how they're coming into the Preakness. I didn't think Hence ran his race at all in the Derby. Watching in the grandstand the first time by, he just was kind of jumping up and down. I believe it was from all the kickback from the 'off'racetrack. We expected him to come out of it like he hadn't exerted himself, and I think that’s what he's shown.
Lookin At Lee has always been in a good rhythm – his personality and gamesmanship are what gave us confidence in him going into the Derby. You have no control over how the other horses run, but you always feel Lookin At Lee is going to do his best. Some of the spots he went through [in Derby] are not for everybody. That’s what has us feeling so strongly about him.
Mark Casse, trainer of Classic Empire
He had so many things go wrong [in Derby], any of which could have cost him the race; I think it cost him a few placings at least. We're running because we think he's the best horse. He’s a tough son of a gun. We still think he's the best horse, and we want to prove it. He's had a lot of things thrown at him and he continues to fight back. We want to just have a good break and see what happens – Always Dreaming's a very good horse, and we just want a fair shot at him."
Antonio Sano, trainer of Gunnevera
Some horses, after they run in the Kentucky Derby, they are down, but not this horse. He is strong. He has put on weight and is eating more. This horse is doing better than he was before the Kentucky Derby. He likes this track.
Doug O'Neill, trainer of Term Of Art
He's knocked heads with some pretty good horses. He's won both of his races with blinkers and I think the return of blinkers moves him up a lot. He's the son of a two-time Breeders' Cup Classic winner, so the distance should be no problem.
Kenny McPeek, trainer of Senior Investment
He's a really confident horse right now and doesn't know he’s running for $1.5m and in a Grade 1. Other than the Louisiana Derby, where he didn't have a great trip and still ran hard, he's done little wrong.
Miguel Hernandez, trainer of Conquest Mo Money
It is not going to be easy, but he’s training right. Every day he has improved more and more. I think he’s going to be pretty tough.