BALTIMORE - Todd Pletcher has a gigantic stable at his Belmont Park base. The trainer has been at Pimlico with the Kentucky Derby winner since the Wednesday after the Derby. He is overlooking no details. He knows Always Dreaming has a real chance to get to New York with a chance at the Triple Crown. His Derby win was no fluke.
Not only does Pletcher train a terrific horse, he employs the best jockey of his generation. What John Velazquez did on the first turn of the Derby was subtle, but game-changing. Always Dreaming could have stayed near the inside, but might have gotten trapped there behind a hopeless front-runner. The jockey eased the colt off the rail so Always Dreaming could run free.
"Johnny was able to make his way to the outside," Pletcher said. "To me, that was the technical part of the race, where he was able to kind of become the stalker instead of being on the inside and then be pressured the whole way."
"Johnny V" will have some interesting early decisions in Saturday's Preakness, as Classic Empire, almost certain to be ridden aggressively, will be just to his outside in the starting gate.
"I think it's an ideal spot for Classic Empire," Pletcher said. "If I were them, I would be happy with that post. I would imagine that they are going to target us and the target is right next to you. It probably gives him a little bit of a tactical advantage from that perspective."
Classic Empire's trainer, Mark Casse, has a scenario he would love to see play out.
"If I could draw it out, Always Dreaming would go full-tilt and him and Conquest Mo Money going at it for about three-quarters of a mile, and we sit behind them and watch," he said. "That's my dream."
Doubtful Velazquez would let that happen.
"Todd's horse has rated before, but I think he rated on the outside," Casse said. "Now he's going to have to rate on the inside. I would be really surprised if you don't see Conquest Mo Money up in the picture early. I love (Always Dreaming and Classic Empire) being side by side, and I like it a lot better that we're outside and he's inside. The start's going to be important. It allows us to have more options. Always Dreaming, he has one of the best riders in the world, so I'm sure Johnny will figure it out."
Always Dreaming not only dominated the Derby, his gallop out beyond the finish line, while not quite Barbaro-like, was quite impressive. This was not a tired horse at the finish line. Or, apparently, now.
"The horse is doing unbelievably well in the two-week turnaround," Pletcher said. "The way he's moving, the way he's acting, the way he's getting over the track, we feel really blessed that he's coming into the race this way. I'm someone who has been in a lot of races and lost a lot of races, so I know you don't want to be overconfident, but I do feel very, very good about the way he's coming into it."
Pletcher has been in town for 10 days and no days have gone by without at least one crabcake. Now, he just needs to get his picture taken in the Preakness winner's circle. If he gets to his home base of Belmont Park with a chance at the Triple Crown on June 10, he will be in position to accomplish the only thing in the sport his mentor, Wayne Lukas, did not accomplish.
It was 22 years ago when Pletcher, Lukas' top assistant, decided to start his own stable.
"I think it was a very intimidating situation to leave and go out on my own when I did," Pletcher said. "In December 1995, we had the strongest stable in the world probably, and to leave a secure assistant job, and a great job around the best horses that were in training at that time. It was a tough decision to make and an intimidating one, and I didn't really know what to expect. I was just hoping to accumulate enough horses to get going and establish a reputation."
Now, Pletcher's stable is the country's most powerful. Always Dreaming is not the best horse in the country. That would be the amazing 4-year-old Arrogate, resting now in Southern California for a campaign that will end this fall in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Del Mar. But Always Dreaming is the best 3-year-old in the country, unbeaten this year, the Derby winner, live for the Preakness, a win away from a shot at the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown on the line.