Amid the roaring catharsis that rippled through Belmont Park on June 6, 2015, one of the first people to reach Bob Baffert in the grandstand and congratulate him was Todd Pletcher.
Baffert’s colt, American Pharoah, had just released thoroughbred racing from 37 years of waiting and wondering whether a Triple Crown could ever be won again. Pletcher, perhaps Baffert’s only legitimate rival in the training business, showed his respect that day. Baffert returned it in kind.
“You’re going to win one of these,” he said to Pletcher.
Difficult as it’s been for anyone to accomplish the ultimate feat in American horse racing, that still was more than an empty platitude from Baffert. If anyone else in the sport had a chance, it’s the trainer with the most lifetime earnings and the most quality horses in his care.
Two years later, that possibility presents itself.
Pletcher’s colt, Always Dreaming, has won the Kentucky Derby and at 4-5 is the solid favorite Saturday in the second race of the Triple Crown, the Preakness. If Always Dreaming triumphs in Baltimore, it will be on to New York for the Belmont June 10 and a shot at making Baffert’s 2015 pronouncement come true.
“I’ve never seen him go into the Preakness with a horse like this,” Baffert said of Always Dreaming. “If he has racing luck, I can’t see him getting beat.”
If it plays out that way, the Triple Crown hype would arrive in bulk – especially with a colorful ownership tandem of native New Yorkers who will play that homecoming storyline to the hilt. But that hype has been notably, strangely absent thus far.
Start with Derby day. The post-race news conference transcript is 12 pages long, and yet there wasn’t a single question or answer about Always Dreaming as a potential Triple Crown horse. This is the first time I can remember when the possibility hasn’t at least been broached in that setting. It’s always premature and almost always erroneous, but somebody always asks.
This year? Nothing.
Then there was the National Thoroughbred Racing Association teleconference last week. Pletcher was asked 21 questions on that call, none of them pertaining to the Triple Crown chances of Always Dreaming.
So what gives? Why is nobody screaming about Always Dreaming as a potential Triple Crown horse?
A trio of theories:
The Pharoah Effect: The sport was starving for a superstar, desperate for a horse to end the drought. When American Pharoah became that horse, it lessened the allure of the Triple Crown storyline, sated the hunger for it, diminished the news value going forward. And if it happens again two years later, Pharoah’s memorable race trilogy won’t seem as special and historic.
Admittedly, the last part of that theory ignores the considerable national interest in the cluster of Triple Crowns in the 1970s, when Secretariat won in 1973, Seattle Slew in ’77 and Affirmed in ’78. But the current sporting climate is seemingly more fickle, with a been-there, done-that, over-it mentality that can create instant fatigue with repeat storylines. And horse racing’s place within the sporting landscape is much more tenuous today than it was 40 years ago.
Little pre-Derby buzz: “[Always Dreaming] came in there quiet,” Baffert said. “He was under the radar.”
Fact is, the entire field came in quiet. This was a crop of 3-year-olds without distinction: none of them had fired off consecutive big performances in high-profile races; all of them had blemishes on the record; everyone had a question mark attached. There was no identified star, and thus no horse was worthy of Triple Crown-level attention or speculation.
That was not the case last year, when Nyquist came to Louisville undefeated and left it that way as well, generating instant Triple Crown buzz. American Pharoah was the established headliner in 2015. California Chrome was the same way in 2014, while also carrying the attractive backstory of common-man owners who refused to sell even a share of the horse for a king’s ransom pre-race.
Always Dreaming? He was a very talented horse who had won just a single stakes race in his life. The Florida Derby is a big one, but that basically was the sum and substance of the colt’s résumé and it usually takes more than one race to spark grandiose speculation over a 3-year-old’s potential.
Pletcher’s Preakness aversion: If one trainer has done the most to lessen the prestige of the Triple Crown’s second leg, it’s Pletcher. He has historically skipped it with his Derby horses, preferring to rest up and wait in ambush at his home track for any Triple Crown aspirant that makes it to Belmont.
Pletcher has had 48 Derby horses, 22 Belmont horses and just eight in the Preakness – with zero victories in that race. The last time Pletcher brought a Derby horse to Baltimore was the last time he won the Derby – Super Saver in 2010. That horse finished eighth.
Pletcher is, on balance, opposed to running horses on two weeks’ rest. He prefers at least three weeks, and often more, between races. With the Preakness always coming two weeks after the Derby, it’s been an almost automatic toss from the schedule.
But when you’re pursuing a Triple Crown, there is no avoiding it. Always Dreaming has had a minimum of 28 days between his six lifetime starts, and now it will be compressed to half that time after the longest race of his life.
The question is whether the horse and his trainer can perform outside of their calendar comfort zone.
“It is a quick turnaround, and sometimes you don’t know how horses are going to respond to that until you get into the stretch of the race, and that’s really when you find out what they have left in reserve,” Pletcher said. “But we like what we’re seeing so far.”
The Preakness will be, at the very least, an even playing field. Always Dreaming’s prime competition in the race also ran in the Derby – Classic Empire was fourth after a troubled trip and Lookin At Lee was the runner-up after a dream trip along the rail. But both of those horses have experience on a shorter turnaround, having run in the Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby on three weeks’ layoff.
And the pace scenario figures to be to Always Dreaming’s liking. A naturally speedy horse, he may find himself alone on the lead after the injury to Royal Mo, who looked like the primary Preakness horse capable of pressing the early pace.
Over the past two decades, the Preakness has been a largely formful race – the randomness produced by a 20-horse Derby field is lessened, and the wear and tear often seen at the Belmont has yet to take its toll.
“The best horse wins the Preakness,” said Baffert, who should know. He’s won six of them.
On paper, Always Dreaming is the best horse. We’ll see about that on the track Saturday. But if he does win, the Triple Crown buzz that has been absent will build in a hurry.
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