BALTIMORE -- Trainer Todd Pletcher was searching for answers after his Kentucky Derby winner, Always Dreaming, dropped back around the far turn and faded to eighth in Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, assuring that there will not be a Triple Crown on the line in three weeks at the Belmont Stakes in New York.
Always Dreaming was pressured early by Classic Empire in the Preakness, but while Classic Empire continued into deep stretch before getting run down late by Cloud Computing, Always Dreaming faded. He was beaten by 13 1/2 lengths.
It was the worst finish by a Derby winner in the Preakness since Super Saver finished eighth, beaten by 11 1/2 lengths, in 2010. Super Saver was also trained by Pletcher.
Pletcher didn't have any immediate reason for Always Dreaming's performance, except to think that a combination of the track surface and running back in two weeks might have conspired against him. The track, though labeled fast, was a drying-out type of surface, a far cry from the sealed, sloppy track he ran over at Churchill Downs.
"He showed in the Derby he's capable of handling pace pressure," Pletcher said. "Maybe the quick turnaround, maybe a different surface, that drying-out surface we were hoping to avoid at Churchill. Important thing is it looks like he's come back well. He's still the Derby winner."
When the Derby winner fails to win the Preakness, the next best thing that can be hoped for is a rematch with the Preakness winner in the Belmont Stakes.
But that is far from a certainty this year.
Pletcher has run only one horse in all three legs of the Triple Crown, Impeachment in 2000. He didn't win any of those races.
"I told Vinnie: I never like to make any decision immediately after a race, win or lose," Pletcher said, referring to co-owner Vinnie Viola. "I'd like to give it some time to digest things, see how he is. We'll take him back to Belmont tomorrow, see how he is, give it a few days."
Cloud Computing won the Belmont in just his fourth career start, giving trainer Chad Brown his first victory in the Preakness or any of the three Triple Crown races. He is notorious for giving his horses plenty of time between starts. He skipped the Kentucky Derby with Cloud Computing, even though the horse had enough qualifying points to make the field.
"Do I think he's a mile-and-half horse?" Brown asked rhetorically. "He's never really struck me that way, but I'm not going to rule it out."
If neither the Derby nor Preakness winner participates in the Belmont -- as was the case in 2012 -- the race figures to be a wide-open affair with a hodgepodge of also-rans from the first two races.
Trainer Steve Asmussen said Lookin At Lee, second in the Derby and fourth in the Preakness, will head to New York on Sunday morning to prepare for the Belmont.
"It's a 3-year-old race over a mile and an eighth for a lot of money," said Asmussen, who won last year's Belmont with Creator. "It suits Lookin At Lee."
Mark Casse, the trainer of Preakness runner-up and Kentucky Derby fourth-place finisher Classic Empire, sounded as if he were leaning against running back in the Belmont, but he stopped short of ruling it out. He listed the Travers in August at Saratoga as a major goal.
"That and probably the Breeders' Cup," Casse said. "How we get there, I don't know."
Senior Investment, third in the Preakness, will head to the Belmont Stakes, according to trainer Ken McPeek. Kentucky Derby also-rans Gormley and Irap have also been mentioned as possible starters for the Belmont.
One of the story lines for the Belmont Stakes will be the presence of the Japanese-bred Epicharis, who finished second, beaten by a nose, in the UAE Derby in March in Dubai.
The New York Racing Association, which runs Belmont Park, put up a $1 million bonus for a Japanese-based horse, should it win the Belmont Stakes. NYRA did so hoping that Japanese officials would take simulcast wagering on the third jewel of the Triple Crown.
In 2016, Japan was able to offer wagering on up to 24 international races annually. Last November, when the Japanese-based Nuovo Record competed in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita, Japanese bettors wagered more than $7.5 million on the race, despite the fact that it went off at 4:43 a.m. on a Sunday in Japan.
This year, the Belmont Stakes could be a bigger deal in Japan than in North America.