BALTIMORE - - The winners of the biggest 2-year-old and 3-year-old races of the sophomore class will square off in the Preakness late Saturday afternoon.
Classic Empire (3-1), last year’s Juvenile champion will take on this year’s Derby winner, Always Dreaming (4-5), in the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown.
Pimlico Race Course will host the 142nd edition of the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes (NBC, 5:00 p.m.) in Baltimore.
Always Dreaming, the heavy morning line favorite, will look to become the fifth horse in the last nine years to capture the first two legs of racing’s Triple Crown series. He came directly to Pimlico after the Derby and has been galloping daily over the track known as Old Hilltop.
Not only have favorites fared well in Baltimore, but horses exiting the Kentucky Derby have won 13 of the last 16 Preaknesses. Bernardini (2006), Rachel Alexandra (2009) and Exaggerator (2016) are the only three non-Derby runners to wear the Black-Eyed Susans during that time frame.
That bodes well for five of the 10 horses that will line up at 6:48 p.m. EDT on Saturday that will run back two weeks after the Run for the Roses. This race has proven to be very formful over the years, with favorites or horses coming out of the Derby dominating the race.
Classic Empire suffered a horrendous start in the Derby being wiped out via a chain reaction started by Irish War Cry who veered inward at the break. The dominoes fell in line with McCraken creaming Classic Empire, putting him at a disadvantage early in the race.
“it was a miracle he finished fourth,” said trainer Mark Casse while braving the sunshine on Wednesday morning outside of the Preakness stakes barns. The 2-year-old champion was the morning line favorite for the Derby, but fell to 7-1 as bettors flocked to Always Dreaming and Irish War Cry who both went off at 4-1.
The son of Pioneerof the Nile drew one spot outside of Always Dreaming in the five-hole, which should set him up perfectly. Jockey Julien Leparoux will have the edge being on the outside in the chess match that will take place early in the race.
“(The post) puts Julien in the driver’s seat,” said Casse. “He can watch, and if we break running and Always Dreaming doesn’t, we may be on the lead. If Always Dreaming breaks running and we break running, if Julien thinks Always Dreaming is running too easy, he’ll go up and engage him earlier. If he thinks he’s running, he’ll sit back.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher, whose only previous Derby winner Super Saver, finished eighth in 2010. The white-haired trainer carries a 0-for-8 record in the Preakness, but he feels Always Dreaming is coming into the race much better than Super Saver did seven years ago.
“With Super Saver, my concern was that the two-week turnaround was a little quick for him. I wasn’t seeing the same energy level galloping,” said Pletcher. “I’m not seeing that with Always Dreaming right now. I feel like he’s ready to go,” said Pletcher.
Always Dreaming’s sire Bodemeister was caught late in both the Derby and Preakness by I’ll Have Another in 2012. The Derby winner avenged his father’s loss at Churchill and will try to do the same at Pimlico. An elusive Triple Crown try awaits Always Dreaming should he double up at Pimlico.
A horse that could be the fly in the ointment is Conquest Mo Money (15-1), an Uncle Mo colt who skipped the Derby to point for the Preakness. His connections paid a supplemental entry fee of $150,000 since he wasn’t nominated to the Triple Crown.
He ran a huge race in the Arkansas Derby, leading throughout until the final furlong when Classic Empire passed him. Before that he contested in a well-run Sunland Derby, finishing second behind Hence (20-1). He’s had a five week break between races and has taken nicely to the Pimlico surface since arriving in Baltimore after a 15-hour van ride from Iowa.
The New York-bred is trained by Miguel Hernandez and ridden by Jorge Carreno, both who have knocked around smaller tracks west of the Mississippi. They enter deep waters in the Preakness, but the smaller field size and outside post are both positives heading into the race.
Carreno has the utmost confidence that his speedy colt won’t back down from a challenge. “He’s a dream horse,” Carreno said. “I never thought about riding this level of horses. I call him a warrior. If he has a horse right next to him he won’t give up, he’ll give everything.”
Lookin at Lee (10-1), the second-place finisher at the Derby, should be coming late with a run that should keep him in the mix for the exotics. His sire, Lookin at Lucky won the 2010 Preakness on his way to winning the 3-year-old Eclipse title.
Jockey Corey Lanerie told The News in the Churchill tunnel immediately after the Derby, that he “never even asked him” until he reached the quarter pole. The Steve Asmussen-trained sophomore comes into the race relatively fresh after getting a perfect trip in the Derby.
Another consideration underneath is Gunnevera (15-1), trained by Antonio Sano, a horse who just couldn’t seem to get his footing in the Derby. After jockey Javier Castellano abandoned ship for Cloud Computing, Sano enlisted the services of Hall of Famer Mike Smith to ride the son of Dialed In. The late running colt will be a player in the exotics underneath the favorites.
The top two look much the best from a class standpoint heading into the race. Finding value underneath and inserting those longer odds horses underneath will enhance the exotic payoffs. I see Always Dreaming tracking Conquest Mo Money through the far turn with Classic Empire off his flank.
If the top two should face off down the lane, it will produce a race for the ages.
A Classic finish to end the Dream.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Classic Empire; 2 – Always Dreaming; 3 – Conquest Mo Money; 4 – Lookin at Lee
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.