Always Dreaming's Journey on the Derby Dozen

As I have done the past several years, I thought it would be interesting to go back week by week and re-live the observations, race reports, workout reports, and any news regarding the eventual Kentucky Derby winner, who in this case first appeared in the Knocking at the Door section on February 28.

February 28

With McCraken’s injury, it looks as if Pletcher can dominate the Tampa Bay Derby, which suddenly has lost most of its luster. Tapwrit worked a sharp half in :47 4/5 in company with ALWAYS DREAMING, who could join him at Tampa. As well as Tapwrit was closing in the final furlong of the Sam F. Davis Stakes, it must be noted that there would have been a fairly significant weight shift with McCraken, as he was getting 6 pounds from the winner in the Sam F. Davis, and McCraken was not fully cranked for that race. But that is all moot now, and he may have jumped into the role of favorite, with Always Dreaming likely to be bet down as well off his impressive runaway maiden score at Tampa.

March 7

Want to know the real sneaky race of the weekend? Ask yourself this question:  Can a front-running horse who crawls his half in :51 3/5 and 6 furlongs in 1:16 4/5 in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race run in a tortoise-like 1:53 2/5 at odds of 1-10 against an extremely weak field be considered a legitimate Derby horse? The answer is yes. When ALWAYS DREAMING won in a laugher by 4 lengths, it was the first race on the card and the track was like the beach after the wind had dried it out. Watching the son of Bodemeister walk to the gate, you could tell you were looking at an exceptional colt. He made a handsome picture and just had such a relaxed commanding presence about him. He shot out of the gate from the rail and just cruised around there in a public workout with John Velazquez not asking him in the slightest until inside the sixteenth pole.

That’s where the sneaky part comes in. Despite still being under wraps around the far turn and well into the stretch, he still was able to run that quarter in :24 1/5, followed by a :12 1/5 final eighth. When Velazquez finally started pushing on him in deep stretch he came home his final sixteenth in just about :06 flat. Yes, a horse going that slow early is supposed to come home fast, but he was still in a common gallop during those closing fractions. He then galloped out strongly (I clocked him going out the mile and a quarter in about 2:07 1/5). Yes, that sounds slow, but on that track, you can bet it put a lot of bottom in the horse. He will get his first and only class test in one of the major preps, where he’ll desperately need points. But the feeling here is that this is a horse to keep an eye on, who you could have gotten at 42-1 in the latest Future Wager.

Always Dreaming has a fascinating pedigree. His grandsires Empire Maker and In Excess should give him enough stamina, with In Excess still holding the Belmont track record for 1 1/4 miles, winning the Suburban Handicap in a blazing 1:58 1/5. His second dam is by a half-brother to Secretariat and his tail-female line has some old-fashioned California bloodlines, with his third dam being by Terrang, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap and Santa Anita Derby, and Terrang being a son of Khaled, the sire of Swaps.

March 21

One of Pletcher’s more dangerous Derby horses might be ALWAYS DREAMING, who had a terrific half-mile work in a bullet :48 flat this week in company with Theory. To me this was the best work by a Pletcher horse this week, as he did it in hand and galloped out very strongly. He has never been tested for class, but this looks to be a year that a horse might not need to be tested for class, as we have so many lightly raced hopefuls filling in the spots vacated by all the big-name failures and dropouts this year. But despite the slow time and fractions of his allowance victory against at best mediocre opponents, I liked what I saw, which is a horse loaded with class with a tremendous amount of upside. Minority interest in him recently was sold to West Point Thoroughbreds, who look to have a future star.

March 28

8 -- Taking a big shot here with the Florida Derby coming up this weekend. I am jumping the gun with him putting him in the Top 12 because I feel he is going to run a big race and establish himself as a major player. But this year’s 3-year-olds have been making everyone looking foolish each week. Although he’s never run a stakes, and his allowance victory was agonizingly slow, I just love the way he moves and handles himself. He seems to just glide over the ground with smooth effortless strides and has the look of a classy horse who is extremely responsive to what the rider asks of him. You want him to relax and go along on cruise control and he’ll just prick his ears and lope along. You want him to get down to business and run and he’ll pin his ears and step on the gas. He has a commanding presence about him and despite still being under wraps around the far turn and well into the stretch in his allowance win, he still was able to run that quarter in :24 1/5, followed by a :12 1/5 final eighth. When Velazquez finally started pushing on him in deep stretch he quickly put it in another gear, leveled off, and came home his final sixteenth in just about :06 flat. Yes, a horse going that slow early is supposed to come home fast, but most horses can’t go :24 1/5 from the three-eighths pole to the eighth pole while in a common gallop. He then galloped out strongly, going the mile and a quarter in about 2:07 1/5, which on that track no doubt put a lot of bottom in him. For the second straight time, he turned in an exceptional work, breezing his half in a bullet :48 2/5, fastest of 26 works at the distance. I love the way he finishes in his works, always with the rider just sitting on him, and how strongly he gallops out, leaving his workmate far behind. He desperately needs to finish first or second to assure a spot in the Derby, but I think he can do it. As a note of interest, Always Dreaming is a half-brother to stakes winner Hot Dixie Chick, who was Rachel Alexandra’s paddock buddy for several years.

April 4

1 -- This move will draw mixed reviews. We’ll see after Saturday’s Blue Grass if this will be a permanent home for him. Sometimes a special horse can transcend speed figures early in their career, and this colt took a sledgehammer and shattered his paltry speed figs with the kind of performance we’ve been waiting for all winter. Regardless of what you may think of Pletcher as a Derby trainer, credit him for knowing what he had and having the patience to run him in that allowance race and let him come around at his own pace and not rush him into graded stakes company, which he often does with more precocious youngsters. He had enough confidence in the colt to give him only one shot to make the Derby and in a grade 1 race. And remember, John Velazquez gave up an entire day of mounts at Gulfstream to go to Tampa Bay to ride this colt in a maiden race. Always Dreaming also showed in that allowance race that sometimes the visual supersedes the statistics, as he looked like a star in the making despite the agonizingly slow time and speed figs. Not all fast horses have the ability to slow it down when asked to, but he adjusted to the track and did what he had to and got a lot of bottom in him on that extremely slow surface, while going out a full mile and a quarter. His last couple of works were extraordinary, especially his strong gallop-outs. Now with all the points on the line, and on a fast surface, he put on a dazzling display of tactical speed and finishing power, by :23-ing his opponents off their feet, rattling off fractions of :23 2/5, :23 4/5, :23 3/5, :23 4/5 and coming home his final eighth in :12 2/5 to complete the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47 2/5, which is only three-fifths off Arrogate’s track record. So he has excelled on two totally opposite surfaces, not to mention Tampa’s quirky surface. How legitimate was this race? There is no way to tell, but again I go by the eye test with this colt and he just does things like an exceptional horse.

April 11

1 -- There is very little separating him and Irish War Cry in natural ability and running style, and both should have no problem with the 1 1/4 miles. The Florida Derby now appears to be the best of the preps, mainly because he easily handled the No. 3 ranked horse Gunnevera and was actually increasing his lead at the wire, while getting stronger the farther he went. Also, there is no telling how good this colt could be, having won three straight races and dominating his opponents in each one. He certainly has all the tools – sprint and tactical speed, class, professionalism, consistency, instant acceleration, tremendous balance and action, long graceful strides, and is extremely light on his feet. Like Irish War Cry, he has a commanding presence about him, and it should be interesting to see how tactics develop with these two exceptional colts in the Kentucky Derby. I believe the key to his success was Pletcher running him in that allowance race instead of throwing him in against graded stakes winners in the Fountain of Youth Stakes the same day. This was an excellent confidence builder and gave him a much-needed mile and an eighth race under him. It also allowed John Velazquez to experiment a little by turning him off and on at will and seeing what kind of gears he has, and then letting him gallop out a full mile and a quarter in about 2:07. So he was able to slow a proven fast horse down to a crawl, then use his turn of foot in the stretch, and finally put a lot of bottom in him. All of that will pay dividends on the first Saturday in May. As mentioned earlier, it wasn’t the margin of the Florida Derby that was impressive or even the time, as much as it was watching him run through the wire, as they say, getting stronger at the end.

April 18

1 -- Boy, is it close up at the top. But rather than keep switching the No. 1 horse every few weeks based on the latest big-race winner, I decided to stick with this guy, partly because of his potential to be any kind and his combination of tactical speed, acceleration, and stamina. Also, fast track or not, he did run by far the fastest 1 1/8 miles of the year and did it pretty much on his own. And he continues to work super. Showing once again how pushbutton he is and how you can turn him on and off, he went off very slow in his  most recent work and then came home his second quarter in :23 2/5 before galloping out strongly, as he always does. Most people are saying what a wide-open Derby this is, but it is very possible it’s not as wide open as one might think. It could actually be about two or three classy, fast horses, in this case Always Dreaming, Irish War Cry, and Classic  Empire, who have the ability to separate themselves from the others. This has been the trend in recent years, and that could be due to the decrease in pure stamina and increase in lightly raced horses who simply are not prepared for such an arduous task, making the Derby more about superior talent and brilliance than anything else. We saw it in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year. We also saw it in last year’s Derby when Nyquist and Gun Runner opened a 5-length advantage at the quarter pole. The year before, American Pharoah, Dortmund, and Firing Line opened up by 3 lengths at the quarter pole and 4 lengths at the eighth pole. In 2014, California Chrome opened a 5-length lead at the eighth pole. And in 2012, Bodemeister opened a 5-length lead at the three-sixteenths, with I’ll Have Another the only horse within striking distance. The exception was 2013 when it was sloppy and the pace was brutal, setting it up for the deep closers. So, if that trend continues, it’s easy to envision Always Dreaming, Irish War Cry and Classic Empire opening up on the field turning for home. The only question one might have with Always Dreaming is whether he will “bounce” off a huge 9-point jump on Thoro-Graph. But he does have a fairly strong 2-year-old figure to fall back on and five weeks between races.

April 25

1 -- I’m not interested in bouncing, Pletcher’s Derby record, a speed-favoring track in the Florida Derby, and his slow allowance race. All I see is a fast horse when he needs to be with pushbutton acceleration, beautiful action, class, an overall presence, and consistently impressive works and super gallop-outs. He also is the only horse with two victories at 1 1/8 miles. In other words, all I see is a horse with unlimited potential. We all know the Kentucky Derby can jolt you back to reality in a hurry and you don’t see the same horse after the race that you saw before the race. But sometimes you just have to go by your gut feelings and initial impressions, and there is nothing about this colt I don’t like or even question. No, he hasn’t faced adversity, but they said the same thing about American Pharoah. As for his allowance win, it’s easy for a fast horse to run fast, but it takes a special horse to be able to turn off that speed at will when he doesn’t need to use it and will run fast only when you ask him to. That’s called versatility. And as for the speed-biased track in the Florida Derby, based on the first race when they obviously watered the heck out of the track, let’s remember closers won the Gulfstream Oaks and Sir Shackleton Stakes and the times of 1:42 4/5 and 1:22 4/5 were OK, but nowhere near as eye-popping as that ridiculous first race and not in the same stratosphere as his 1:47 2/5 in the Florida Derby. I just think this horse can do whatever he needs to do and whatever is asked of him, and if Pletcher and Johnny V are ever going win a Derby together, this certainly looks like the horse that can do it for them. He has had no setbacks and is a horse who you can say has superstar potential.

May 2

1 -- There has been concern about his over-aggressiveness in the morning, especially throwing his wildly in the air. Draw reins were added to keep his head down and a more experienced exercise rider galloped him, and he was much better on Tuesday. I’m not going to do anything drastic at this late date, but he will have to harness some of that pent up energy if he hopes to win the Derby. Although I make it a habit not to become enamored with Pletcher’s brilliant Gulfstream horses, this horse just looks special. He’s won on fast and agonizingly slow surfaces and at quirky Tampa and is always increasing his margin at the wire. His gallop-outs after his works are consistently strong and he never seems to get tired. He must have tremendous lung capacity, as did his sire and broodmare sire, both of whom had blazing one-turn speed and could carry it long distances. Despite having never raced at 2 and with only four career starts, Bodemeister nearly pulled off a front-running victory in the Kentucky Derby, while In Excess still holds the 1 1/4-mile track record of 1:58 1/5 at Belmont Park. Always Dreaming’s :36 1/5 final three-eighths in the Florida Derby is the fastest of all the major prep winners. His works have been sensational whether he works alone or in company and he just keeps going. In his final work by himself, he rattled off eighths in :11 2/5, :11 2/5, :11 4/5, and came home under no urging in :12 1/5 before throwing in a pair of :13 eighths in his 7-furlong gallop-out in 1:25 3/5.

May 4 Final Analysis

So, with all that craziness, we now have to pick a winner of the Kentucky Derby. Because of all the setbacks and shocking performances, I have had several horses ranked No. 1 throughout the year. But for the past five weeks I have stuck with Always Dreaming for the simple reason I believe he is special and has the potential to be a major star. But I have to admit I try to make it a habit every year not to fall under the spell of a brilliant lightly raced Todd Pletcher-trained horse who runs lights out at Gulfstream. They always look like world beaters at Gulfstream and often win the Florida Derby, but they either peak too soon or prove too inexperienced and seasoned to stand up to the rigors of the Kentucky Derby.

So the question is, am I getting suckered into liking another one of those lightly raced horses who is going to take a lot of money only to fizzle out on the first Saturday in May? On top of that, the Always Dreaming I have always applauded for his class, professionalism, and overall demeanor, came to Churchill Downs full of spit and vinegar and galloped the first few days as if there were a swarm of hornets around his head. Although he turned in another of his brilliant works and powerful gallop-outs, he still was too wound up in his post-work gallops, prompting Pletcher to put on a more experienced exercise rider and equip him with draw reins to keep his head down and give the rider more control. There was
improvement, but the colt still was a bit too aggressive for a horse about to run a mile and a quarter. Will he be still be too aggressive in the stampede of horses that will be trying to get a good position going into the first turn? Will he be able to settle once he does get position? Drawing the 5 post with speed on both sides of him, we just don’t know what’s going to happen, but with his natural speed he could wind up in terrific position. Obviously there is no way to tell.

With that said, why would I stick with him as my top choice? Because I believe that class I observed months ago will come out on Derby Day and he will somehow work out a good trip and wind up in a striking position, which will allow him to use all that natural talent I still believe he possesses. Maybe I’m always dreaming myself and defying all the logic of handicapping a race like the Derby. But I am going to put my faith in the colt and the skills of John Velazquez and stick with him. There is just something about this colt that inspires confidence and I believe he may be special. Never before have I seen a horse run so fast and so slow to win in back-to-back races, which shows he can adapt to anything and run blazing fast if he needs to or crawl along at a snail's pace if that's all it takes to win. You just don't see fast horses with the ability to turn it on and off at will like he has shown. 

Some still like him a lot and others are throwing him out of the mix or relegating him to their fifth or sixth choice. But the facts are he ran a mile and an eighth in 1:47 2/5, three-fifths off Arogate’s track record, and, of course, the track was quick; all record or near-record times are recorded on fast tracks, and he was increasing his lead at the wire, coming home his final three-eighths in :36 1/5, the fastest closing three-eighths by any winner of a major prep. As far as a speed-favoring track, the majority of dirt races that day were won by closers, including the Gulfstream Park Oaks and Sir Shackleton Stakes.

So even with the undesirable aggressiveness he's shown, I still believe his class and talent will win out on Derby Day and we'll see something special.

Postscript

After jumping nearly 10 points on Thoro-Graph from his sloth-like allowance victory to a negative number in the Florida Derby, Always Dreaming was a prime candidate to “bounce,” or regress right? Well, not only did he not bounce at all, he actually ran a point faster in the Kentucky Derby. Even with a strong number at 2 to fall back on, it’s not every day you see a horse make as huge a leap as he did and then take another step forward. Only a truly extraordinary horse can do that.

Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but if Always Dreaming should sweep the Triple Crown,he would become the second Triple Crown winner sired by a Bob Baffert-trained runner-up in the Kentucky Derby (American Pharoah by 2009 runner-up Pioneerof the Nile and Always Dreaming by 2012 runner-up Bodemeister).

As mentioned in an earlier column, Always Dreaming and Arrogate, the respective No. 1 horses on the NTRA poll, both are from the Unbridled line (Arrogate by Unbridled’s son Unbridled’s Song and Always Dreaming by Unbridled’s grandson Bodemeister).

How deliciously ironic would it be if after eight missed opportunities to be immortalized with a Triple Crown call, and then having to watch the first sweep in 37 years the year after he retires, Tom Durkin goes into the history books, not for calling a Triple Crown winner, but owning one?

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