Preakness: No Awaking From This Dream

If you enjoyed the Kentucky Derby dream, no sense waking up now. You might as well keep dreaming until you are jolted back to reality, if and when that ever occurs.

Kentucky Derby winners often run better in the Preakness, despite the two-week comeback, or maybe because of it, and it would not be surprising to see Always Dreaming win the Preakness more impressively than he won the Kentucky Derby. The fact is, we still have no idea just how good this colt is, just as we didn’t know quite how special American Pharoah was when he went into the Preakness. All we knew was he had all the qualifications and all the attributes to be something special. And the same can be said for Always Dreaming. I can see Always Dreaming turning back the challenges of Classic Empire and Conquest Mo Money and opening up at the head of the stretch. And if he turns for home with a clear lead he's gone.

For those still looking elsewhere, the big question is, which direction is Classic Empire heading? All indications, from a visual aspect, suggest he is at the top of his game following an absolutely disastrous trip in the Kentucky Derby. The champ no doubt will receive a great deal of support, especially having run 75 feet farther than the winner and 89 feet farther than Lookin At Lee, according to Trakus.

But you’re going to have to determine whether Classic Empire is ready to beat Always Dreaming even with a good trip or if he is going to regress even slightly running in his third race in five weeks following an unscheduled 2 1/2-month layoff and missed training. He drew directly outside Always Dreaming, which should help Julien Leparoux assess the situation and place his horse accordingly. Although Classic Empire ran a bang-up race in the Arkansas Derby and had no shot when he lost position and valuable ground in the Kentucky Derby, we just don’t know where he is compared to his championship season last year. He seems to be doing very well at Pimlico, and now just has to work out a good trip to have any chance of out-finishing the Derby winner.

The other horse who likely will get good support at the windows in Conquest Mo Money, based mainly on his gutsy effort in the Arkansas Derby. But in looking at that race when evaluating him and Classic Empire, as well as Lookin At Lee, it must be noted that the first five horses were separated by only 2 1/4 lengths, and Malagacy, who likely is no more than a miler, also hung tough in the stretch. However, as usual, the Arkansas Derby form did hold up well at Churchill Downs, with the second and fourth-place finishers.

Another matter to consider with Conquest Mo Money is the fact that he went to Arkansas having spent the entire winter training at Sunland Park, which is at an altitude of just under 4,000 feet. Remember, the two most shocking results in Derby history were the victories by Canonero II and Mine That Bird, both of whom had trained all winter at high altitudes – Canonero in Caracas, Venezuela and Mine That Bird also at Sunland Park. So did that attribute to Conquest Mo Money’s big effort at Oaklawn and if so how long does it take for that angle to wear off once a horse has been at low altitudes for an extended period of time? All that may mean absolutely nothing, but it is something to at least consider.

The horse who really has me stumped is Gunnevera, who I admit I have a soft spot for and who I have ranked high on the Derby Dozen all year. I have no idea whether he is tailing off after his sensational victory in the Fountain of Youth or whether the Kentucky Derby simply was a throw-out race due to the sloppy track and being in traffic on the worst part of the track. Although it wasn’t as much as Classic Empire, he still ran 55 feet farther than Always Dreaming and 69 feet farther than Lookin At Lucky. From what I can see, his coat looks terrific, with a beautiful shine to it, and he also looks to have bounced out of the Derby in excellent shape and is thriving at Pimlico.

Cloud Computing has really caught the eye, and he has the look of a true stayer. His energy level is high and he’s been really focused and in the zone in his gallops, which have been very strong. He no doubt is a horse with a bright future. With him the big question is whether he’s ready to win a classic race against top-class horses with only three lifetime starts. The only Preakness winner in memory with three lifetime starts was Bernardini, and, sadly, he did not have to beat the Derby winner, and we all know the superstar he turned into.

Looking at the Thoro-Graph numbers, the horse who has shown the steadiest improvement, despite being so lightly raced, is Cloud Computing, who has now reached a figure that makes him extremely competitive in here. And he’s done it without a huge move forward, just a near-perfect cycle that has brought him here in only three races. So there is no denying that this is a quality colt with a very bright future. The question is the lack of experience. I do know that Chad Brown has always been extremely high on him.

Classic Empire also has shown the kind of improvement with each start that you want to see. He was fast enough as a 2-year-old to win the Preakness or be right there, and with three steady moves forward this year, he is right back to where he was in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The question is, does he have another forward move in him to get him over the hump after cramming three races in a short period of time?

Gunnevera still holds the fastest number of any horse in the field, which he earned in the Fountain of Youth. He regressed in the Florida Derby and then made a slight improvement in the Kentucky Derby, despite finishing seventh, but he would need to improve two to three points to have any chance of beating Always Dreaming and Classic Empire. I like the way Sano has been training him, and if he runs anywhere near his Fountain of Youth figure he is an enticing upset possibility at 15-1 on the morning line. And the addition of Mike Smith certainly is not going to hurt.

Lookin At Lee had been running steady numbers throughout most of his career without much of a forward move, but has made tremendous progress in his last two starts, and a repeat of the Derby would make him competitive once again. But let’s remember, he did have a dream, ground-saving trip in the Derby, and deep closers usually don’t win the Preakness by just getting up in the final furlong.

Conquest Mo Money has made a great deal of progress in his last two starts, but still needs to improve about three points.

Hence was making decent progress going into the Derby, but took a major step backwards, whether it was the track or getting shuffled to the back of the pack. So, if you liked him in the Derby, he would certainly deserve another shot.

The remainder of the starters are somewhat competitive on the numbers, but would need significant improvement to challenge the leading contenders. From a looks standpoint, Senior Investment is a big, grand-looking horse, and Kenny McPeek is always dangerous. Multiplier is a horse to watch for down the road, and ran a big race in the Illinois Derby to nail a Todd Pletcher horse who has a lot of ability, but is not in the same class as Always Dreaming.

So you can make some kind of case for most of the horses in the race to at least hit the board, but in the end it all comes down to Always Dreaming.

As for the concerns some people may have regarding the Derby winner, it is constantly being pointed out that Todd Pletcher doesn’t like running back in two weeks. That may be true, but Todd Pletcher isn’t running back in two weeks. Always Dreaming is and by all appearances he doesn’t seem fazed by it. Neither have any of the other Derby starters in the past three decades. In fact, of the last 33 Preakness winners, 30 of them ran in the Kentucky Derby. Of the three that didn’t, Red Bullet won when Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus didn’t handle the slop; Bernardini won after Derby winner Barbaro broke down shortly after the start; and Rachel Alexandra had won the Kentucky Oaks, so she was coming from Churchill Downs and running back in two weeks anyway, just like the Derby starters, and that year’s Derby winner, Mine That Bird, did finish a fast-closing second, beaten only a length.

As for the meaningless fact being brought up that the last two Derby winners in the slop – Orb and Super Saver – ran poorly the Preakness, that is not even worth addressing, except to say that when looking at Derby winners in the slop, Mine That Bird ran a terrific race at Pimlico to finish a fast-closing second to Rachel Alexandra and Smarty Jones won the Preakness by a resounding 11 1/2 lengths. And even more important, when is the last time we saw a young 3-year-old win on so many different types of surfaces as Always Dreaming? This year alone he has won over the quirky Tampa Bay surface; one of the slowest tracks ever seen at Gulfstream Park; a speedy surface at Gulfstream, in which he missed the track record by three-fifths of a second; and the sloppy/muddy surface at Churchill Downs (There is no way that track was wet fast, as listed). As I’ve been saying all along, there is very little this colt can’t do and apparently no surface he can’t handle.

Another positive note to take away from the Derby is that although a powerful closer like Lookin At Lee was able to draw away from the pack from the eighth pole to the wire, going from a half-length in front of Battle of Midway at the eighth pole to five lengths in front of him at the finish, he wasn’t able to make up any ground on Always Dreaming, who is always strong to the wire in all his races, and always gallops out strongly, whether in his races or his workouts.

So, considering I have no questions or concerns at all when it comes to Always Dreaming, and I do have questions regarding all the others, I see no reason why the result of the Preakness should be any different than it was in the Derby, except of course, as mentioned earlier, Always Dreaming wins even more impressively than he did at Churchill Downs, which is a distinct possibility. I am going to continue to believe this colt is very special until he proves otherwise. And I don’t foresee that happening. And to take it one step further, if he runs like I think he will in the Preakness, good luck trying to beat him in the Belmont Stakes. This horse has tremendous lung capacity and never seems to get tired, and the way he's been training this week he no doubt has an uncanny ability to recover quickly from his races as if they took nothing out of him..

As we all know, anything can happen in a horse race, so just in case, I would save with win bet on Gunnevera, who could prove to be a huge overlay. I have always loved this colt, having had him No. 1 on Derby Dozen for several weeks, and I’m not giving up on him yet. What I also like about him in his explosive turn of foot on the far turn, which he demonstrated in the Delta Jackpot and Fountain of Youth. And the Preakness has always been conducive to closers who have that instant acceleration on the turn and can go from last to first. We saw what Secretariat did on the first turn, which has never been done before or since. And we have seen those big moves on the far turn over the years by Damascus, Little Current, Afleet Alex, Charismatic, Real Quiet, Spectacular Bid, and going farther back, Whirlaway, all of whom blew by the entire field on the far turn and then drew off to score impressive victories.

Betting-wise, nothing fancy here. It’s all about Always Dreaming on top of whoever you want; the most logical choices being Classic Empire, Gunnevera, and Cloud Computing, with a saver win bet on Gunnevera. I think there is a good chance Cloud Computing is going to be bet down and will close at single-digit odds. There seems to be a lot of buzz around him.

So onward we go, as Brooklyn takes Baltimore and on to Belmont. The dream continues.

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