Always Dreaming proved in his dominant Kentucky Derby victory that he is the real deal. Those who may have been skeptical about his ability to repeat his Florida Derby effort – his only legitimately fast speed figure – were silenced as this Bodemeister colt splashed through the stretch at Churchill Downs well ahead of his peers. Now, his task becomes immeasurably easier as he attempts to take down the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Only four of his rivals from the Kentucky Derby have returned to face him again, and just a few of the new shooters are considered legitimate threats.
Another factor that figures to make Always Dreaming’s job easier is a more favorable pace scenario. The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting a situation that favors the runners racing on or near the lead. Outsider Conquest Mo Money (#10) is predicted to be in front early, but Always Dreaming (#4) proved in his Derby win that he’s capable of contesting fast fractions, so it would be no surprise to see John Velazquez let him set the pace. The Derby winner is drawn inside of Conquest Mo Money, so Velazquez can either hold his position toward the rail or let that rival go on ahead.
The stalkers Cloud Computing (#2) and Classic Empire (#4) should be tracking that duo from close range, especially given the likelihood of a moderate early tempo. Depending on how well he breaks, there is a chance that Julien Leparoux on Classic Empire may revert to the aggressive tactics he employed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, thus replacing Conquest Mo Money as the one who takes it to the favorite early.
Let’s make our way through the entire field:
#1, MULTIPLIER (50-1): He worked out an absolutely perfect trip in the Illinois Derby, saving ground early before angling out in the stretch. He ran down a nice horse in Hedge Fund but has yet to face a truly top-caliber 3-year-old. He’s one of many closers in a race that is not predicted to feature much pace. A superfecta possibility at best.
#2, CLOUD COMPUTING (12-1): This lightly raced colt is undoubtedly talented, but is he ready for this step up in class after just three starts? Although he was defeated in both the Gotham and the Wood Memorial, he actually ran better than it appears in those races. He was chasing a very fast pace in the Gotham and did well to hold sway late as the race was falling apart in the stretch. Then, in the Wood, he missed the break by about a length, which put him out of position in the early going. That error turned out to be especially costly over that day’s speed-favoring surface at Aqueduct.
He’s a horse whom trip handicappers like myself have to strongly consider based on those arguments. However, I think some questions have been raised about the strength of the fields for the Gotham and Wood. The form of those races hardly held up in the Kentucky Derby, as both J Boys Echo and Irish War Cry were soundly defeated. Some of that may have been due to the track condition and their trips, but it gives me some cause for pause. In my opinion, he’s the third most likely winner of this race and would be a fair price at around 6-1 or greater. Has much to overcome but is far from impossible.
#3, HENCE (20-1): Reserved at the back of the pack for much of the Kentucky Derby, he had to steady in tight quarters just as he was launching his bid approaching the top of the stretch. He lost some momentum but did absolutely no running after that, so it’s doubtful that he would have made much of an impact even with a cleaner trip. His prior effort in the Sunland Derby was excellent, but he still has to prove that he can repeat it. He actually possesses more early speed than he showed in the Derby, so I’ll be interested to see if Florent Geroux uses it this time. A definite trifecta player but an unlikely winner.
#4, ALWAYS DREAMING (4-5): He is a deserving favorite, plain and simple. I cannot deny the dominance he displayed in his Derby victory, but it is worth pointing out that his supporters could not have drawn up a better trip for him in that race. We also must acknowledge that he very well may have been aided by a track that was playing kindly to runners racing right on the rail. That said, he is now the first horse in this division to have recorded two TimeformUS Speed Figures that exceed 120, and the only one to have done so as a 3-year-old.
As was previously mentioned, the pace of this race will work in his favor, and it will be up to the others to make him earn this victory. Some will point to Todd Pletcher’s reluctance to run in the Preakness as a knock, but he actually has decent numbers with horses coming off layoffs of this type in graded stakes. According to DRF Formulator, over the past five years, Pletcher is 4 for 15 with an ROI of $2.14 when running horses back in 10 to 17 days in graded stakes on dirt. Always Dreaming is indeed the most likely winner of this race, but he is not unbeatable. His morning-line price of 4-5 is a bit too low, and it’s possible that his odds will drop from there. Certainly the one to fear but not exactly a great bet.
#5, CLASSIC EMPIRE (3-1): It’s hard not to wonder what could have been. Considering the circumstances, this colt put in a huge effort in the Kentucky Derby. He actually broke quite sharply but was then slammed from the right just a few strides out of the gate. He was then shuffled back in the opening furlong, ultimately finding himself more than 10 lengths off the early pace in the run around the first turn. Julien Leparoux smartly chose to be patient rather than panic, and he got Classic Empire to settle for the first half of the race. He launched his move around the far turn and actually put in a relatively effective rally considering that no one in the race was really passing horses on the outside. He flattened out in the lane but had every right to do so after overcoming so much up until that point.
Some questioned the strength of his Arkansas Derby win going into his last race, but that form held up well in Kentucky as Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee also took the Oaklawn route. One would imagine that his connections will be looking to get back to the tactics that won him that race and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. This horse has been most successful when he’s placed closer to the pace, and it would be interesting to see how John Velazquez reacts if Leparoux sends Classic Empire after that rival as aggressively as he sent him after Syndergaard in his Breeders’ Cup win. We already know that Classic Empire can look another horse in the eye and keep finding more, so it’s unlikely he will back down when these two hook up. If he can get back to that 123 TimeformUS Speed Figure he earned as a juvenile, he may win this race. Always Dreaming does deserve to be favored over him, but I don’t think the gap between these two is as wide as some may think. The pick.
#6, GUNNEVERA (15-1): Considering that he is a deep closer by nature, he got a decent trip in the Derby. He was able to save ground early and tried to follow Classic Empire’s wide move but just couldn’t match strides with that one over the last three-eighths of a mile. He loses Javier Castellano to Cloud Computing, but picking up Mike Smith is nothing to be upset about. Of greater concern is that he does not figure to get much pace to close into. A repeat of his Fountain of Youth would make him a player, but that win was accomplished with the aid of a fast pace. Hard to endorse for anything more than a minor award.
#7, TERM OF ART (30-1): This plodder is too slow to be considered a serious player in the race. Unlikely to even break into the superfecta.
#8, SENIOR INVESTMENT (30-1): Another late runner, he had everything go his way in his Lexington victory, as he got a fast pace (indicated by red color-coding in the PPs) to close into over a track that was playing kindly to closers (indicated by the blue-colored Race Rating box). He does not figure to be quite so fortunate here and is meeting a much tougher group of runners. I’ll pass.
#9, LOOKIN AT LEE (10-1): The most impressive performance in the Kentucky Derby may have been turned in by a human, not a horse. Corey Lanerie’s ride aboard Lookin At Lee was perfect. Every decision he made proved to be the right one, and he gave his mount the best possible chance. It takes some guts to hold one’s ground on the rail in a field as large and congested as the Kentucky Derby, but that’s exactly what he was able to do. That’s exactly where you wanted to be on Oaks and Derby days, and he was able to capitalize on that perceived bias. The downside is that he is highly unlikely to be as fortunate once again, nor will he get such a fast pace to close into. This horse is going to be a much shorter price than runners like Hence and Gunnevera off his Derby performance, but I still believe these three are much closer in terms of overall ability than that race suggests. He’s one to consider in exotics, but he will not offer much value. The most likely candidate to take a step backward out of the Derby.
#10, CONQUEST MO MONEY (15-1): A moderate pace helps his colt’s cause. He really stepped up his game in the Arkansas Derby, which ultimately proved to be the key prep race for the Kentucky Derby. He’s been beaten in his last two starts by today’s rivals Classic Empire and Hence, but he lost nothing in defeat in those races. A win would be asking a lot of this plucky son of Uncle Mo, but he is a hard trier and could hang on for a minor award. Cannot be left out of the trifecta mix.