BALTIMORE — Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming came to a decaying track wedged into one of the most frayed neighborhoods in one of the country’s most turbulent cities to relax.
It has, according to his trainer Todd Pletcher, worked.
The likely favorite for Saturday’s 142nd Preakness Stakes spent last week regaining strength after his win over a muddy track in the first leg of the Triple Crown. He did so in the relative quiet of Stall 40, the usual home to Kentucky Derby winners, with few other horses nearby. Pimlico Race Course is rarely used for racing, and the facility has a set of barns reserved for stakes horses. Only a few arrived last week.
“It’s been really peaceful for him in every way with nobody around,” said exercise rider Nick Bush, the din of a busy street off in the distance. “This is exactly what he needed, just having a few days basically to himself. You can tell he’s feeling great.”
Always Dreaming, who broke cleanly from the crowded Derby field and won by 2 3/4 lengths with jockey John Velazquez, is vying to become the 13th Triple Crown winner. American Pharoah won in 2015, breaking a 37-year drought that had dominated the discussion this time of year. Now that it has again been proven a 3-year-old can win three grueling races over six weeks, questions about the configuration of the series and the breeding stock of modern horses have mostly subsided.
That works for Pletcher, as taciturn a trainer as there is in horse racing today. This is his second time taking the Derby winner to the Preakness; Super Saver finished a disappointing eighth for him in 2010. Unlike then, he decided to come here early, sending the horse three days after the Derby, to get acclimated.
Pletcher has been named the country’s top trainer seven times, but he’s never won the Preakness and has only entered eight previous times. He, like most trainers, generally does not run his horses on a two-week turnaround. He spent a rainy first week in Baltimore watching his slender colt closely.
On Friday morning, Always Dreaming went out on a saturated track and jogged alongside a pony. Pletcher described the horse, who at times appeared to be jumping gleefully along the track, as “full of himself.”
Always Dreaming galloped on Saturday and Sunday, and Pletcher plans to ease him into the Preakness.
“This whole two weeks in between the Derby and the Preakness is all about just refueling and keeping him healthy and happy,” Pletcher said. “Right now he looks like he’s very, very happy.”
Always Dreaming’s pace-tracking style may bode well for his chances at the Preakness, the shortest of the Triple Crown races at 1 3/16 miles. Derby winners who have stayed near the lead — American Pharoah, California Chrome (2014) and I’ll Have Another (2012) — have been able to replicate that success at Pimlico. Horses that won coming from behind — Orb (2013), Animal Kingdom (2011) and Super Saver — struggled two weeks later.
Always Dreaming’s sire, Bodemeister, finished second to I’ll Have Another in both the Derby and the Preakness, where he lost by a neck after setting the pace.
Bush, the exercise rider, only started working with Always Dreaming in the days leading up to the Derby when another of Pletcher’s riders suggested the colt — winner of all four races he has entered this year — needed a more muscular rider. Pletcher also decided to switch to draw reins, which more strictly control the horse’s head.
“What we’ve seen, I think, is that he just keeps getting stronger every day,” Bush said. “You could just really tell he was growing and understanding what he could do. That has continued here. He’s very eager to run.”
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