Always Dreaming on track for another winning performance

BALTIMORE -- From a 20-horse field to 10. From a week of raw, rainy and sloppy conditions in Louisville to sun, heat and -- despite a Friday thunderstorm -- dry conditions in Baltimore. From a wide-open race to one where there will be an overwhelming favorite who, on paper, looks tough to beat.

Going in, there are stark differences between the 143rd Kentucky Derby held two weeks ago at majestic Churchill Downs and Saturday's 142nd Preakness to be run Saturday at dilapidated, on-life-support Pimlico Race Course. Ultimately, however, the result may very well be the same, as a horse named Always Dreaming will be heavily favored to keep the Triple Crown dream alive in the Preakness.

Always Dreaming won the Kentucky Derby by 2 3/4 lengths, using his good early speed to avoid the traffic that other contenders encountered early in the race as well as the kickback of slop that also impacted the late-runners.

Though a strong thunderstorm hit Baltimore late Friday afternoon which turned the track sloppy for the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, conditions are expected to improve by Saturday, and Pimlico's main track should be fast when Always Dreaming goes for his fifth consecutive victory in the Preakness.

Always Dreaming is trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by John Velazquez, who, respectively, have accrued the most purse money won by any trainer or jockey in Thoroughbred history.

That team has won 1,620 races together, and each has won more than 4,000 races individually. Neither has ever won the Preakness. Pletcher has started eight horses in six runnings. Velazquez is 0-for-7 including a runner-up finish aboard Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom in 2011.

A victory Saturday will send both back to their home track of Belmont Park on June 10 for the Belmont Stakes with a chance at racing immortality -- the Triple Crown.

There are several storylines entering the Preakness, which at 1 3/16 miles, is a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby.

The Derby winner

Ten of the past 20 Kentucky Derby winners have come back two weeks later to win the Preakness.

Among those who didn't was Super Saver, trained by Pletcher, who finished eighth in 2010. Pletcher said he had an inkling Super Saver wasn't going to replicate his Derby performance in the Preakness by the way he trained in between.

"He had a tremendous three weeks between the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby," Pletcher recalled. "The two weeks he had between the Derby and Preakness, I wasn't seeing the same aggressiveness we normally see from him in the gallops. I think the two-week turnaround hurt him."

Quite the opposite appears to be the case with Always Dreaming. He got very aggressive in the mornings leading up to the Kentucky Derby, so much so that Pletcher had to make an equipment change to get him to slow down. For the final week of preparation for the Derby, he rigged Always Dreaming with draw reins to help the rider have more control while slowing the horse down by keeping the horse's head down, almost to his knees. The equipment did seem to keep Always Dreaming from overexerting himself in the days leading up to the Derby.

Pletcher kept that same equipment on the Derby champ leading up to the Preakness. There were mornings when Always Dreaming looked like he wanted to explode, but the draw reins and the handling of exercise rider Nick Bush helped defuse the colt.

On Friday morning, Pletcher removed the draw reins and simply had Always Dream jog -- the equivalent of a human power walk -- and the colt appeared pretty calm.

The quiet confidence that Pletcher exuded before the Derby has become a bit louder leading into Saturday.

"The horse is doing unbelievably well in the two-week turnaround," Pletcher said. "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."

Seeking redemption, not revenge

When the Kentucky Derby winner doesn't win the Preakness, usually one of the rivals he beat in the Run for the Roses does.

In 30 of the last 33 years, the Preakness winner has participated in the Kentucky Derby.

Trainers Mark Casse, Steve Asmussen and Antonio Sano hope that trend continues.

Casse is the trainer of Classic Empire, the champion 2-year-old male colt of 2016, who finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby after getting wiped out leaving the starting gate. Some traffic troubles that occurred leaving the gate left him 13th early in the race, further off the pace than he would have otherwise been with a clean break.

The horse made a good run to finish fourth. While Casse dismisses reports that he's seeking revenge, he just wants a fair shot.

"It's more a champ being dethroned by a rising star," Casse said. "Always Dreaming is one hell of a horse, and ultimately, he may be better than us. We'd like to just have a chance."

Asmussen has won the Preakness twice, with Curlin in 2007 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009. He trains Lookin At Lee and Hence, who finished second and eleventh, respectively, in the Derby.

Of his two runners this year, Hence best resembles Curlin in the fact that he had trouble and didn't seem to handle the mud in his 11th-place Derby finish.

Conversely, Lookin At Lee had as perfect a trip as one could have when he finished second to Always Dreaming on the first Saturday in May.

"For both horses, I don't think the Derby took that much out of them," said Scott Blasi, the assistant to Asmussen who has overseen the pair's preparation this week.

Fountain of Youth winner Gunnevera, who finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby, is also seeking to rebound.

New kids on the block

The last horse to win the Preakness without having run in the Kentucky Derby was Rachel Alexandra, the superstar filly who beat Derby long-shot winner Mine That Bird as part of an undefeated season (9-for-9) in 2009 that ended with her being named Horse of the Year.

There does not appear to be a horse of her caliber among the five newcomers entered in this year's Preakness.

Typically, if a 3-year-old is healthy and has enough qualifying points to start in the Kentucky Derby, he runs. But in the case of Cloud Computing and Conquest Mo Money, their connections made a conscious effort to skip the Derby.

Cloud Computing, trained by reigning champion trainer Chad Brown, has only one win from three starts but did finish second in the Grade 3 Gotham and third in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial, both at Aqueduct in New York.

Brown, who had a starter in the Kentucky Derby in Practical Joke, felt running Cloud Computing in a 20-horse field in his fourth lifetime starter wasn't prudent.

"It's just so much for a horse that is that lightly raced," Brown said. "There's 19 horses that lose the Derby. You got to figure out what you're doing the next day with them. I've been there. It's nice to take your shot, but you got to be calculated about it."

Brown, who after having most of his success with turf horses, is getting more opportunities with dirt horses the caliber of which belong on the Triple Crown scene. This is the trainer's first Preakness starter, but even he admits it's "a tall order" to defeat Always Dreaming.

"This horse fits as much as any of other challengers," Brown said. "Whether he's good enough to beat the Derby winner remains to be seen."

Conquest Mo Money was held out of the Kentucky Derby because of his busy racing schedule that had him running March 26 and again April 15. His trainer, Miguel Hernandez, felt his best chance was to wait for the Preakness and hopefully bring in a fresher horse.

"Who knows? Maybe I can win, maybe I'll run last," Hernandez said.

His owners, Tom McKenna and Sandy McKenna, did spend $150,000 to make their horse eligible for the Preakness, hoping for the former.

Forecasting the outcome

Though five straight favorites have won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness remains the most formful Triple Crown event with 72 favorites winning.

Always Dreaming has that, tactical speed and top-notch connections on his side. He has trained this week similarly to the way he trained leading up to the Kentucky Derby. His main rival figures to be Classic Empire, who, if he gets away cleanly could provide either a target for Always Dreaming or a nuisance presence on the pace. It would not be surprising to see these horses run 1-2 around the track.

A non-Derby starter has finished second in the Preakness 11 times in 33 years. If either Always Dreaming or Classic Empire falter, a potential long-shot player is Multiplier, the winner of the Illinois Derby, or Cloud Computing.