Will Classic Empire Turn the Tables in the Preakness?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Two weeks after an exciting Kentucky Derby that saw Always Dreaming cruise to a decisive victory, the field is set for the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes (gr. I) at Pimlico, the second leg of the Triple Crown. Nine challengers will line up to face the Derby winner, though according to recent history, defeating him could be a task easier said than done.

Over the last twenty years, ten Kentucky Derby winners (Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, I'll Have Another, California Chrome, and American Pharoah) have come back to win the Preakness, an eye-catching 50% strike rate. Furthermore, on the ten occasions when the Derby winner was beaten at Pimlico, seven of the winners were horses that finished behind the Derby winner at Churchill Downs.

This means that since 1997, only Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006), and Rachel Alexandra (2009) have won the Preakness without having started in the Kentucky Derby, suggesting that if you want to find the Preakness winner, it's wise to start with the Kentucky Derby runners.

From all appearances, Always Dreaming will be very difficult to defeat. The son of Bodemeister has gone 4-for-4 this year, including clear-cut triumphs in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and Kentucky Derby. His tactical speed gives him a major advantage, especially in the Preakness Stakes, a race that has generally been very kind to speed horses. Reports indicate that Always Dreaming has come out of the Derby very well, and at Pimlico he'll meet a field with very little speed on paper-he figures to work out another perfect trip either setting or stalking the early pace, making him difficult to catch.

Still, you can make a case that Always Dreaming will face a very stiff challenge from Classic Empire, the reigning champion two-year-old. The son of Pioneerof the Nile has flashed significant talent while winning three Grade 1 races, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (with a career-best 102 Beyer speed figure) and the Arkansas Derby, in which he overcame a rough trip and a variety of winter training issues to prevail.

In the Kentucky Derby, Classic Empire endured even more trouble. After being slammed at the start, he dropped much farther off the pace than usual, finding himself a dozen lengths off the lead after the opening half-mile. He was also racing wide over a track that seemed to be favoring the inside paths, but to Classic Empire's credit he fought on despite another bump in the homestretch and rallied to finish fourth, beaten 8 ¾ lengths by Always Dreaming.

Interestingly, data from Trakus notes that Classic Empire ran about 9 ¼ lengths farther than Always Dreaming, suggesting that with a different trip Classic Empire could have finished much closer. Given that the Kentucky Derby was only his second start following his winter training issues, there's a chance that Classic Empire might be poised for another step forward in the Preakness Stakes, which would make him a serious threat.

In the Preakness, Classic Empire should be able to stay much closer to the early lead than he did in the Derby, possibly stalking Always Dreaming through a modest pace. In analyzing his Preakness chances, I can't help but think back to Lookin at Lucky, a champion two-year-old that finished sixth in the 2010 Kentucky Derby over a sloppy track. In the Derby, Lookin at Lucky had a very troubled start from post position one and wound up much farther off the pace than usual. Although his late rally never seriously threatened and he was beaten seven lengths by Super Saver, Lookin at Lucky turned the tables and won the Preakness.

With all of this in mind, I have to take a shot with Classic Empire to post a mild upset in the Preakness Stakes, though I certainly respect Always Dreaming and wouldn't want to leave him off any serious multi-race wagers.

For the exotics, I believe Cloud Computing and Conquest Mo Money are the primary contenders. The lightly-raced Cloud Computing finished second in the Gotham Stakes (gr. II) and third in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) at Aqueduct, which earned him enough points to run in the Derby, but his connections chose to pass the race and await the Preakness instead. Considering that he was compromised in the Wood Memorial by a slow start and a speed-favoring track, I thought his third-place effort was much better than it looked, and he's been catching eyes while training for the Preakness. The four-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Javier Castellano picks up the mount, and in a race without much pace, Cloud Computing has enough speed to stay within striking range of the leaders. From there, I think he has a big shot to hit the board.

As for Conquest Mo Money, he's never finished out of the exacta and finished just a half-length behind Classic Empire when second in the Arkansas Derby, a race in which he dueled for the lead through a solid pace. Drawing post position ten means that he'll likely have to gun for the lead from the start, but that might not be the worst thing in a race like this. If he can avoid getting into a prolonged pace battle with Always Dreaming, he should have enough left in the tank to hang around for a spot in the superfecta.

One horse that I'll play against is Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin at Lee. While his Derby effort was admirable, he received a perfect trip rallying up the rail, covering substantially less ground than any other horse in the race while taking advantage of the best part of the track. A modest pace in the Preakness could compromise his chances, and thanks to his Derby performance he won't offer much value in the wagering.

A more intriguing off-the-pace runner might be Hence, who finished eleventh in the Derby after previously defeating Conquest Mo Money by 3 ¾ lengths in the Sunland Derby (gr. III). While not the most consistent colt, Hence has shown flashes of good form and will be a much bigger price than Lookin at Lee-in fact, he's 20-1 on the morning line. If you're willing to forgive his Derby effort and judge him on his Sunland Derby form, you can make a case that finishing in the exotics isn't out of the question at a big price.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Preakness Stakes?



J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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