BALTIMORE - Always Dreaming is unquestionably the most likely winner of Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico. If you forget his two sprint races last year with a different trainer and just look at his two-turn races this year with Todd Pletcher, there is nothing subtle about his record. The colt has been dominant, including his semi-romp in the May 6 Kentucky Derby, winning by a combined 23 lengths.
Did the colt get a "dream" trip in the Derby, the chaos unfolding behind him? Absolutely.
That they almost always got dream trips was the knock on California Chrome and American Pharoah. It was also their greatest attribute. Horses with natural speed avoid problems, get great position, race comfortably and win.
I am not saying Always Dreaming is as talented as Chrome or Pharoah. Those colts had won many more major races at this stage so there is just not enough evidence to put the 2017 Derby winner in the class of the 2014 and 2015 Derby winners who, of course, won five of six Triple Crown races.
It is just that the running styles are similar and, in horse racing, the best style is the one that avoids trouble and places the horse in the best position to show his talent. Always Dreaming's talent is unquestioned. To go from a horse without a win on the morning of Jan. 25 to Derby winner on May 6 screams rare ability.
Still, I have a few questions. I had zero questions about Chrome or Pharoah by this stage. I could not imagine either losing the Preakness and both won comfortably.
Is this too much too soon for Always Dreaming? Can he reproduce his Derby form two weeks later, a huge deviation from Pletcher's system that calls for four and usually five weeks between races for his stakes horses?
Pletcher has started 48 horses in the Derby, just eight in the Preakness. Only three of his Preakness horses had run in the Derby.
Pletcher "had" to run just one Derby horse in the Preakness. His 2010 Derby winner Super Saver finished eighth in the Preakness as the 9-5 favorite.
I hated Super Saver that day because I thought he was fortunate to get a sloppy track in the Derby and another amazing rail ride from Calvin Borel. I loved eventual Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky who got a Derby trip from hell and finished sixth.
I think 2016 2-year-old champion, Classic Empire, fourth in the Derby after an absolutely horrendous trip, is this year's Lookin At Lucky. That said, any comparison between Always Dreaming and Super Saver is purely a coincidence of Pletcher training them. I definitely do not hate Always Dreaming, a colt with far more ability than Super Saver.
And Pletcher, absolutely one of the smartest people in the sport, learned from his Super Saver experience. He kept that colt at Churchill Downs, gave him a timed workout and sent him to Pimlico the week of the race. Always Dreaming has been at Pimlico since last Tuesday and there will be no workouts, just long, strong gallops to hone the colt's fitness.
"I think if I had a do-over with Super Saver I probably wouldn't have breezed him at all,'' Pletcher said. "We have a very good horse on our hands, having the benefit of having run a mile and an eighth and a mile and a quarter, he's putting plenty of energy into his gallops and I just don't see the need for a breeze. So, I'm just trying to focus the two weeks on kind of refueling the tank a little bit.''
The positional speed is Always Dreaming's greatest racing attribute. With only one other speed horse (Conquest Mo Money) in the Preakness, Always Dreaming could get another perfect trip and may be on the lead from the start.
Which brings us to Classic Empire. I thought the colt showed great courage to finish fourth after getting crushed at the start and never getting close to what certainly looked like an advantageous rail. Typically unaggressive rider Julien Leparoux must ride Classic Empire aggressively. Given the lack of speed, they should be no worse than third heading into the first turn. The 5 post just outside Always Dreaming is perfect as Classic Empire can shadow the favorite early.
"In my mind, I thought we would be laying fourth or fifth in the Kentucky Derby, and after the start we were 13th going into the first turn,'' Classic Empire's trainer Mark Casse said.
According to Trakus, Classic Empire ran 75 feet farther than Always Dreaming and 90 feet farther than second place Lookin At Lee who rode the live rail and is an automatic throwout for me.
Watch NBC's overhead far turn shot and the dirt nearest the rail just looks different, more compacted. Always Dreaming rode it for much of the race, Lookin at Lee never left it except late in the stretch.
Closers like Gunnevera and Hence were clearly impacted by early Derby problems and should run much better in a smaller field. Hence actually was on the rail behind Lookin at Lee and could have followed into the stretch. But rider Florent Geroux inexplicably took him to the middle of the track.
I think Cloud Computing and Conquest Mo Money are the only non-Derby horses with a chance and neither has a great chance.
So, it's most likely Always Dreaming again, but hard to like him at 4-5 or so. Officially, my pick will be Classic Empire because I know he's better than his Derby finish. But I don't know if he is good enough to beat Always Dreaming.