You can talk all you want about how Always Dreaming had a perfect stalking trip in Saturday's Kentucky Derby. You can snicker all you want about what a cliché it has become when people say that horses with positional speed such as Always Dreaming make their own good trips. And you can lament all you want about how the sloppy track conditions at Churchill Downs over the weekend might have compromised so many horses in the Derby who never previously had experience on such footing.
You can do all of that. But I will respond by saying, very nicely, that I don't want to hear it.
Because Always Dreaming was tons the best winning the Derby. He was. He was as deserving a winner as you will see in the Kentucky Derby, and all it takes to understand that is a simple consideration of pace.
Always Dreaming, as is his wont, was intensely involved from the start Saturday. Now, consider the list of horses who were with him in the long run to and around the first turn:
- State of Honor
- Battle of Midway
- Irish War Cry
- Fast and Accurate
- Practical Joke
Why is this list important? Because as Always Dreaming was bounding home in front by daylight, you needed a telescope to find the other seven horses at the finish who were with him early. OK. Battle of Midway did finish third, but he was beaten a long, long way.
The point here is, Always Dreaming ran hard every step of the way in this Derby. The quality of his performance is underscored by the fact that all of those horses who tried to keep up with him early paid a steep price late -- a price that Always Dreaming never even remotely thought of paying.
Now, the big question is can Always Dreaming come back with another top-class performance just two weeks from now in he Preakness? That is the question that will be the hot-button topic over the next 14 days.
Every horse is an individual, and though he has never been asked to run back so quickly, maybe Always Dreaming will love it. We don't know that, but we do know this: For all of his incredible success, and for all he does so well, Todd Pletcher, Always Dreaming's trainer, has not been active or successful at bringing horses back on short rest in top-stakes races.
In fact, according to Formulator, over the last five years -- a period during which Pletcher has had almost 5,200 starters -- he started only two horses in Grade 1 stakes going a route on dirt off layoffs of between only 12 and 15 days. One was Caixa Eletronica, who finished eighth, beaten 13 1/2 lengths in the 2012 Whitney. The other was Dontbetwithbruno, who finished sixth, beaten 28 1/4 lengths in the 2015 Haskell.
Always Dreaming was very good Saturday. The Preakness will be another chance for him to do something very good, just in a different way.
Of all the also-rans in this Derby, the one I'm most interested in going forward is Classic Empire. Classic Empire was banged around badly at the start, putting him farther off the early pace than he is accustomed to. He also had trouble in the stretch. When you combine this with the fact that Classic Empire's preparation for the Derby was so compromised by a foot abscess and misbehavior, I think he did remarkably well to finish a willing fourth. I'd love to see Classic Empire take on Always Dreaming in the Preakness, because I think he'll move forward off the Derby in a big way.
One final point regarding the Derby. Many people feel that, since Always Dreaming and runner-up Lookin At Lee were toward the inside all the way, the rail at Churchill must have been especially good Saturday, like it was on Friday. Not true. Anyone who paid close attention to all of the main-track races Saturday at Churchill knows that the track played fairly.
Derby weekend notes
* Abel Tasman capitalized on a complete pace meltdown to win Friday's Kentucky Oaks. Others had a chance to capitalize in identical fashion, but to her credit she was the one who actually did. The Oaks is the most important race a 3-year-old filly can win, so Abel Tasman's victory must at least put her in the conversation on leading members of her division. But that said, I can't help but think the distinction of divisional leader goes back to one who is currently recovering from a shin issue and wasn't even in action Friday -- Unique Bella.
Two reasons why I feel Unique Bella is back on top without even running:
First, Paradise Woods had a golden opportunity to cement her divisional leadership in the Oaks if she could follow up on her sensationally fast and big score in the Santa Anita Oaks. But she couldn't (understandably) after being cooked in a speed duel with Miss Sky Warrior that was totally senseless and completely destructive to the chances of both. Paradise Woods gave way to finish 11th of 14 (Miss Sky Warrior wound up a weary eighth), and with it went her control of divisional leadership, for the time being, anyway.
Second, Abel Tasman had a crack at Unique Bella in the Santa Ysabel in early March but was unsuccessful. Abel Tasman did throw a momentary scare into the brilliant Unique Bella when she made a bold run at her in upper stretch. But in a jaw-dropping display that made everyone watching wonder just how many gears she has, Unique Bella instantly flicked Abel Tasman's challenge aside and went on to win with total authority.
Abel Tasman isn't as good as Unique Bella. I'm also still not entirely convinced Abel Tasman is as good as Paradise Woods without the benefit of a tremendous setup. But we did know that Abel Tasman was not almost 12 lengths inferior to Paradise Woods, the margin she was beaten by when second in the Santa Anita Oaks, because she was clearly left with way too much to do in the late stages on that day. And importantly, we now know Abel Tasman is the Kentucky Oaks winner, and all else aside, that's important stuff.
* When it comes to potential future impact, perhaps the most important stakes on Saturday not named the Kentucky Derby was the Westchester at Belmont. Connect, winner of the Pennsylvania Derby last fall over Gun Runner, and making his first start since winning the Cigar Mile, absolutely dominated his Westchester field, which included the once-heralded Mohaymen. Connect needs only health, and to avoid Arrogate, to be a major player this year in the handicap division.
* With due respect to Roca Rojo and the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile, the best turf race for females Saturday was the Sheepshead Bay, also at Belmont. Sea Calisi shocked her opposition with an impressive, outside burst of speed late on the far turn that carried her to a clear-cut score. But as good as Sea Calisi was, second-place finisher Suffused impressed, too. Suffused was caught in a switch you could see coming late on the far turn and was caught in traffic while Sea Calisi was taking the race by the throat with an unobstructed run. Yet Suffused still chased gamely all the way down to the wire and showed she's not that far off Sea Calisi.
* Females also put on a terrific show in the Humana Distaff. Paulassilverlining made the Humana Distaff her second straight Grade 1 score since moving into Chad Brown's barn (she won the Madison at Keeneland last month) and seems to be in career form. Finest City, the defending champion female sprinter, was a fine second, beaten just a neck. And Carina Mia's close third was an excellent effort when you consider this was her first start in six months and was spotting all-important recent racing to the top two.
* I've been a big fan of Divisidero from very early in his career, and I must admit that after he was set up to run big in his last two starts and failed to do so, I feared his best days were behind him. Well, Divisidero proved he is not done yet when he produced a powerful late surge to win the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic. This was his second straight win in this event and third straight victory in an undercard stakes on Kentucky Derby Day, so Divisidero also proved he knows what day it is.
* As noted up top, until at least the Kentucky Oaks, Friday's sloppy main track at Churchill was decidedly tilted in favor of rail runners, and by extension, speed horses. (When speed is good, it almost always means that the rail is good because speed horses naturally gravitate toward the inside, forcing closers to the outside and the poorer footing.)
The way Churchill's track played Friday had a significant impact on the undercard stakes. Big World's front-running upset in the La Troienne and Bird Song's front-running upset in the Alysheba were almost entirely functions of how the track played. I'm still trying to figure out how Bird Song got as completely loose as he did in the Alysheba, considering all the other speed in that race, but he did, and school was out early.
But credit should go to Honorable Duty and Romantic Vision, the runners-up in the Alysheba and La Troienne, respectively. Both tried hard against the grain of the track and ran winning races in defeat. They, and everyone else who ran well against the track Friday, should be upgraded in future starts.
* The track also had a huge say in the outcome of the Eight Belles. Benner Island, who was cutting back in distance and who previously showed no early speed, rushed up from the 1-hole under an alert Javier Castellano to dispute the pace. Benner Island showing this surprising speed, even in an Eight Belles without a lot of pace, was evidence of how strong the inside was at that point in the card.
Benner Island was lucky to win, however, and not just because she rode the bias. Second-place finisher Union Strike had an opening on the rail in midstretch, which Benner Island closed without fouling, forcing Union Strike to steady and angle out. Despite losing momentum at a critical moment of the stretch drive, Union Strike rallied, just missed and was unlucky not to win.
* La Coronel impressed by winning the Edgewood and, for me, not only because she won despite going very wide into the stretch. I just had the sense La Coronel wasn't entirely confident with the footing in her first encounter with off-turf, and I think she got up over stablemate Dream Dancing because she's so darn good. Either way, La Coronel is a beast, and I believe she has even better performances ahead.