Six-time Preakness Stakes winner Bob Baffert calls it the easiest leg of the Triple Crown, noting how top 3-year-olds tend to thrive on the short 2-week turnaround by “bouncing forward” into the 1 3/16-mile race. Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming looks more than capable of following suit.
In 36 runnings between Triple Crown heroes Affirmed (1978) and American Pharoah (2015), 13 Kentucky Derby victors were able to hold form by winning the Preakness, including seven who left the Churchill Downs starting gate at odds of 5-1 less (California Chrome, Big Brown, Smarty Jones, Silver Charm, Sunday Silence, Pleasant Colony and Spectacular Bid).
Including Affirmed and American Pharoah, 15 horses in the last 39 years have swept the first two jewels in the series, a 38% strike rate. The 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes, the third and longest event in a five-week span, is the race that trips up so many Triple Crown aspirants.
Always Dreaming is exiting a 2 ¾-length decision as the 9-2 Kentucky Derby favorite and is scheduled to ship to Pimlico on Tuesday. He hails from the first crop of 2012 Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister.
Todd Pletcher became a dual Kentucky Derby winner and owns a pair of Belmont Stakes trophies, but the leading trainer is still seeking his first Preakness success. He brought Super Saver to Baltimore after winning the roses but Always Dreaming has little in common with the 2011 Kentucky Derby scorer. A juvenile Grade 2 winner under the Twin Spires, Super Saver lost both 3-year-old preps before posting a minor upset on the first Saturday in May.
As noted in a TwinSpires blog examining Pletcher’s lack of Kentucky Derby success, Always Dreaming doesn’t fit the typical Pletcher mold when it comes to the Triple Crown.
He was winning big early this year, scoring by 11 ½ lengths and 4 lengths in maiden and entry-level allowance tallies, but registered only 89 and 84 BRIS Speed Ratings for those efforts.
The numbers were misleading, with respective 99 and 112 BRIS Late Pace figures serving as a better gauge of his domination. Always Dreaming dictated extremely slow paces before finishing full of gusto, displaying tremendous versatility by not running as fast as he could both times. He provided jockey John Velazquez with complete control at the wheel and when you consider he’s a front-running type, it takes a special horse to do so.
When the powerful dark bay finally had to run from the start of the Florida Derby (G1), Always Dreaming won as easy as possible recording a 5-length triumph from just off the pace. I didn’t think we had come close to seeing his best yet, couldn’t envision a “bounce” off the Florida Derby.
However, his training at Churchill Downs did worry me. Not enough to jump ship but Pletcher was forced to change equipment in order to keep the colt’s head down in gallops. The rambunctious behavior proved inconsequential with Always Dreaming continuing to be all business during the afternoon, willing to do anything Velazquez commands.
Johnny V (Velazquez) established forward positioning through the opening stages of the Kentucky Derby but wasn’t going to risk being softened up by speedball State of Honor, easing Always Dreaming back from the inside approaching the backstretch. He quickly got to the outside in the two path, tracking State of Honor until reclaiming the lead on the far turn. But it was a narrow advantage through the bend as Battle of Midway and Irish War Cry applied pressure, with Always Dreaming waiting patiently until the stretch to offer another gear.
When Velazquez shook him up straightening for home, Always Dreaming went from about a neck up to 3-lengths clear in a flash. The Kentucky Derby was over by midstretch as he comfortably proved much the best.
I thought the pace would be slower due to a lack of need-the-lead types in the field, but State of Honor was willing to sacrifice any chance for a decent finish by charging gung-ho from the start. He tried to outrun Always Dreaming and weakened to 19th.
Confirmed front-runner Conquest Mo Money is ready to join the Preakness cast and the presence of new speed helped wreck the chances of Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist last year, with the 3-5 favorite dueling from the start with Uncle Lino before weakening to third.
But I wouldn’t be too concerned about the pace scenario on May 20. If we’ve learned one thing watching him this year, Always Dreaming isn’t going to run himself out during the early stages of a race.