BALTIMORE -- A little more than 60 hours prior to the Preakness Stakes on Saturday, Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming stepped onto the Pimlico track at 5:33 a.m. Thursday, ready for his daily exercise. Turned loose from the pony accompanying him, he immediately set out with keen interest for his 1 1/2-mile gallop, looking nothing like a horse just 12 days removed from the biggest test of his career, the Kentucky Derby.
"That's the way he's been since he's been here," his trainer, Todd Pletcher, said as Always Dreaming marched back to the stakes barn under exercise rider Nick Bush as the sun started to come over the horizon. "Except for one morning when he tried to buck Nick off, he's gotten progressively stronger."
For the first and likely only time in his career, Always Dreaming will run back on two weeks' rest on Saturday. It can be a challenge for any horse in this modern era, where races are often well spaced, an approach that Pletcher has embraced with most of his horses.
The Triple Crown, though, requires horses to adhere to the calendar. To get to this point, Pletcher has kept Always Dreaming relatively fresh. By bypassing a series of prep races in stakes and focusing on smaller building blocks, Pletcher gambled that he would have a colt who would produce when it mattered in the Florida Derby and thus would be set for the demands of what lay ahead.
To date, it has all gone perfectly. Always Dreaming eased into his 3-year-old campaign by winning a maiden race against overmatched rivals at Tampa Bay Downs. Instead of throwing Always Dreaming into the Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 4, Pletcher ran him in an allowance race that day at Gulfstream against inferior competition.
So, when Always Dreaming lined up for the Florida Derby on April 1, he had exactly zero points toward a berth in the Kentucky Derby. The Florida Derby was his one shot to make the field. And when he won, he was in. Five weeks later, he outran 19 rivals in the Derby while earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 102.
"To have a vision four or five months in advance and have it work out is very satisfying," Pletcher said the night of the Derby.
The next morning, Pletcher said he believed that running Always Dreaming in consecutive 1 1/8-mile races at Gulfstream gave the colt "a good foundation" for the Derby's 1 1/4 miles.
On Saturday, in the second leg of the Triple Crown, Always Dreaming cuts back 110 yards to 1 3/16 miles, so distance is not a question. And of the 19 horses Always Dreaming beat at Churchill Downs, only four -- Lookin At Lee, Classic Empire, Gunnevera, and Hence -- are back to challenge in the Preakness. There are five newcomers to the Triple Crown -- Cloud Computing, Conquest Mo Money, Multiplier, Senior Investment, and Term of Art -- and with a field of 10, the Preakness has half the number of runners as the Derby.
The smaller field hopefully will produce a cleaner race than the Derby, in which several horses -- including Preakness runners Classic Empire and Hence -- were compromised. Always Dreaming, though, avoided the trouble, the benefit of having a horse with tactical speed who breaks well.
"He gets into a rhythm, clicking off pretty solid fractions," Pletcher said. "To get into that high-cruising speed and maintain it from a mile and an eighth to a mile and a quarter, it takes an elite horse."
Always Dreaming starts from post 4, with Classic Empire -- who finished fourth in the Derby after getting wiped out at the start -- right alongside in post 5. Classic Empire is probably not as quick as Always Dreaming unless asked aggressively, but it's likely he'll want to be lapped onto Always Dreaming from the start.
Conquest Mo Money, making his first start since finishing second to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby -- and supplemented to the Preakness and Belmont for $150,000 -- is the pace wild-card. He drew the outside post and has the speed to pressure Always Dreaming, or even gun for the lead, a scenario Pletcher has examined in regard to Always Dreaming.
"If the situation presents itself and he's third or fourth or even fifth behind horses, I don't think it'll be an issue," Pletcher said.
More important, as in the Derby, is for jockey John Velazquez to get Always Dreaming into a position where his long, loping stride is unencumbered. Velazquez deftly got outside of pacesetter State of Honor in the Derby, turning into the backstretch to be in the clear. If someone else is committed to the lead in the Preakness, Velazquez may have to make a similar move. But it's entirely possible that Always Dreaming takes up the early running, and his rivals will have to try to overtake him.
Classic Empire is the clear second choice. He ran a remarkable race to finish fourth in the Derby after a start that resulted in him being shuffled to the back half of the field in the opening quarter-mile.
"I think this race sets up nice for us," said Mark Casse, who trains Classic Empire. "But I thought the Derby set up nice for us. I thought we'd be fourth of fifth after the start, and we were 13th."
Casse said that jockey Julien Leparoux told him after the race: "I don't know how I stayed up. I didn't get bumped. I got clobbered."
Cloud Computing should be able to sit a good trip just off the leaders, while Gunnevera, Hence, Lookin At Lee, Multiplier, Senior Investment, and Term of Art all will be hoping a hot pace develops that leaves the leaders vulnerable to their closing charges.
Term of Art is adding blinkers. That is the only equipment change among the 10 runners.
The Preakness, worth $1.5 million, goes as race 13 on a 14-race card that begins at 10:30 a.m. Eastern. Post time for the Preakness is listed as 6:48 p.m. It will be shown live on NBC in a telecast beginning at 5 p.m.
Preceding the Preakness are seven stakes races, three of them graded, including the Grade 2, $250,000 Dixie for older grass runners, including World Approval and Ring Weekend, and the Grade 3, $150,000 Maryland Sprint, which includes Whitmore and A. P. Indian.
The Maryland Sprint and the Grade 3, $150,000 Gallorette for female grass runners will be shown during NBCSN's coverage, which begins at 2:30 p.m.
It was extremely hot and humid here Thursday, with a high of 94 degrees, according to The Weather Channel, but a thunderstorm predicted for Friday is forecast to result in a gorgeous day Saturday, with a high of 69 degrees and no rain.