LOUISVILLE, Ky. — There was never any reason to question the talent of Always Dreaming. He had been brilliant in three races this year, making quick work of a maiden field at Tampa Bay Downs in January, a conditional allowance race at Gulfstream Park in March and then passing the big Florida Derby test April 1.
He was much the best that day, pressing a fast pace, then pulling away as the others tired down the stretch, foreshadowing a scenario that would repeat itself Saturday in the Kentucky Derby.
But before Always Dreaming came thundering through the slop at Churchill Downs to beat Lookin at Lee by 2¾ lengths, there was concern about his behavior this week. When trainer Todd Pletcher sent Always Dreaming to the track last Sunday, the horse was so eager to train he became difficult for his exercise rider, Adele Bellinger, to control, something the horse had never done before.
“I wasn’t completely sure why,” Pletcher said. “The horse had galloped on a daily basis exceptionally well all winter and he was into his training, but he wasn’t rank like he was when he first got here. It was the first day you could see a difference in his personality.”
The concern in a situation like that is the horse will exert too much energy and leave his race on the track in the morning. Pletcher, whose powerful barn wins big races all over the country but has had a much-maligned Derby record of one win and two seconds from 45 starters, knew an adjustment needed to be made.
So for the rest of the week, Pletcher brought Always Dreaming out to gallop before dawn, using a new exercise rider in Nick Bush and “draw reins,” which allow for better control. Still, Always Dreaming was a handful coming up to the Kentucky Derby, which meant this would go one of two ways.
He clearly wanted to run, but it’s a fine line for these animals between jumping out of their skin and being relaxed enough to handle all the issues a 1¼-mile race in front of 158,070 people would present. Either Always Dreaming was about to run the race of his life or he was going to come unwound by the circumstances and the fast pace and jockey John Velazquez would have to let him chase.
“We felt like he was sitting on go, almost to the point where we were trying to deliver at 6:45 on Saturday [evening] and not 6:45 on Thursday morning,” Pletcher said.
Now we know he timed it just right.
Always Dreaming is indeed a “freak,” a term of endearment on the backside reserved for extremely fast horses who can carry their speed over distance. That was also the parlance used for his sire, Bodemeister, who opened up a five-length lead at the top of the stretch in the 2012 Kentucky Derby after contesting a blazing pace. But unlike his father, who got passed near the wire by I’ll Have Another, Always Dreaming kept on going.
For that, a huge amount of credit goes to Velazquez, who shook the reins at his horse right when the gates opened. It was a clear message for Always Dreaming to go now and avoid the kind of traffic trouble that wiped out several contenders in the race, most notably Classic Empire, who got squeezed by McCraken at the start.
So as the Triple Crown shifts to Baltimore, the next question for Always Dreaming is whether he’s still this much better than his peers when it’s a smaller field with fewer variables.
Always Dreaming indeed got the perfect trip, hugging a rail that was good to front-running horses all day long in the Churchill Downs slop. It was the perfect combination of circumstances for him to dominate this race.
While Always Dreaming has the ideal running style for a Triple Crown winner — he looked a little bit like American Pharoah out there — it’s unlikely others will be as compromised by traffic at Pimlico. Classic Empire, in particular, wasn’t allowed to run his best race.
If he contests the Preakness, he’ll provide a much better barometer to determine whether Always Dreaming is a really good horse that took advantage of ideal circumstances or truly something special.
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