One of the enduring memories of Always Dreaming’s victory in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago was of Todd Pletcher’s colt striding down the stretch with the silks worn by John Velazquez looking as if they had just come fresh out of the washing machine.
Behind him were 18 grey ghosts spattered and toiling in the muddy conditions with Classic Empire, the favourite for the Run For The Roses, and Julien Leparoux caked in mud almost nine lengths back in fourth.
The contrast between the trips experienced by those two horses could not be starker, and trainer Mark Casse said it could be so different when the two colts do battle again in the 142nd Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Racecourse on Saturday night.
As soon as Classic Empire emerged out of the starting gate, McCracken came flying across from the auxiliary gate to hurtle in to last season’s two-year-old champion. From there, Classic Empire was way off the pace before either a clod or stone pitched in to his eye. As a result, Classic Empire’s eye was seeping the following morning and had to be treated.
To top it all off at Churchill Downs, Classic Empire was bumped in to again in the stretch and ran 75 feet farther than Always Dreaming.
Casse hopes that being drawn beside the Kentucky Derby winner in gates 5 and 4 respectively can bring them at least closer together at the end of the 1,900 metres.
“He got wiped out at the start,” Casse said. “At some point in time, I don’t know whether it was from a stick or dirt or what it was, but he couldn’t open his right eye on Sunday morning. So, I think it cost us a few placings at least.
“You can only speculate on what the outcome of the race would have been had he been given a clear trip.
“That’s nine lengths just in running farther. I feel pretty confident given a level playing field we can give Always Dreaming a run for his money. And that’s the great thing about our sport, everybody can think and believe, but we get to prove it on the track.”
Always Dreaming has the tactical advantage because only Conquest Mo Money, the ride of Jorge Carreno and newcomer to the Triple Crown trail, poses a threat up front.
Conquest Mo Money is drawn widest of all in stall 10, which means Velazquez could well have the run of the race on the inside.
Pletcher has never won the Preakness Stakes, but from just eight runners he has saddled Impeachment in to third in 2000. His 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver finished a tired and lowly eighth, but the multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainer has learnt his lesson.
Unlike Super Saver, since Always Dreaming won at Louisville, Pletcher has not breezed him against the clock to keep him fresh and is confident of a big run.
“He’s a horse with good tactical speed, as he showed in the Derby,” Pletcher said. “He’s capable of when he gets into a rhythm of clicking off pretty solid fractions. And I think that’s one of his great strengths, he’s got a tremendous gallop to him and he can get into a high burst of speed and then sustain that for a distance of ground.
“It takes an elite horse to do those types of things and that’s what he’s proven to us that he is capable of doing.”
If the rivalry between Always Dreaming and Classic Empire is only just beginning, Godolphin’s Ribchester and Al Shaqab’s Galileo Gold clash for the fifth time in the Group 1 Lockinge Stakes on the other side of the Atlantic at Newbury Racecourse.
The score stands at two apiece, with Ribchester’s victory in the Prix Jacques Le Marois and second-place behind Minding in last season’s Queen Elizabeth II Stakes up against Galileo Gold’s victory in the England 2,000 Guineas and his runner-up spot in the Group 1 Sussex Stakes.
Godolphin own Ribchester and also run Toscanini as his pacemaker in the 1,600m contest and Lennox Stakes winner Dutch Connection. Ribchester has not raced since he found the soft ground and step up to 1,800m too far at Meydan in the Dubai Turf in March. For all his supposed tactical advantage with the race sponsored by Galileo Gold’s owners Al Shaqab he faces a formidable and tuned-up foe.
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