An apparently carefree Always Dreaming stepped from his van at 11:08 a.m. Tuesday and made his way to Stall 40 at Pimlico Race Course, the spot traditionally reserved for the Kentucky Derby champion.
The colt’s relaxed mood was good news for trainer Todd Pletcher, who experienced several nervous moments in Kentucky because Always Dreaming was unruly in adjusting to the track at Churchill Downs.
He won’t actually set foot on the dirt at Pimlico until 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, when he’ll jog once around, accompanied by a pony. Pletcher plans to arrive from New York on Wednesday afternoon and gallop Always Dreaming on Thursday morning as he prepares for the 142nd Preakness on May 20.
“I just spoke to Todd and told him, ‘The horse looks very bright-eyed. He looks very happy. He looks like his normal self that we see every single day,’ ” said assistant trainer Ginny DePasquale, who welcomed the Derby champ. “It’s pretty special to see him looking that well. I’m happy and I know Todd is.”
Always Dreaming boarded a van to leave Churchill Downs just after 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport on his charter flight at 10:22 a.m. He then received a police escort to Pimlico, where he’ll attempt to win the second leg of the Triple Crown.
He’s the second straight Derby champ to arrive in Baltimore earlier than usual after Nyquist came in 12 days before the Preakness last year. Pletcher felt it was important to get Always Dreaming to Baltimore as soon as possible after he had a rough time acclimating in Louisville.
“I think that’s the important part,” DePasquale said. “Just let him look around without all the excitement and that way, he can take everything in. And then slowly but surely, all the excitement starts.”
Pletcher ultimately did a masterful job of settling Always Dreaming, switching exercise riders and using draw reins, a piece of equipment designed to give the rider more leverage to slow the horse down during morning gallops.
The colt handled the chaos and noise of Derby day without issue and ran a near-perfect race over the mud at Churchill Downs.
“That’s his typical self. That’s him,” said DePasquale, who has worked with Pletcher for 20 years. “Todd was concerned that coming out of the gate [in the Derby], he would be rank, the way he was galloping. But he had his game face on and was ready to go.”
The next question is how Always Dreaming will deal with the two-week turnaround from the Derby. He has never run on less than four weeks’ rest and had five weeks off before his career-defining victory on Saturday.
Pletcher brought him along conservatively all winter and spring, hoping he would have a fresh horse for the Derby. He hopes that approach will continue to pay dividends in the Preakness.
But Pletcher makes no secret that he prefers longer rest periods for his horses. He has saddled 48 starters in the Derby but only eight in the Preakness, which he has never won.
Asked about the quick turnaround, he said, “I’m as comfortable with it as I can be.”
The Preakness field shaping up behind Always Dreaming is no group of pushovers.
Classic Empire’s fourth-place finish in the Derby belied the fight he showed rallying from a violent collision in the opening seconds of the race. Jockey Julien Leparoux said the morning-line favorite was fortunate not to go down from that blow.
That difficult trip continued a wild 2017 for the Mark Casse-trained colt, who was hampered by foot and back troubles during the Florida prep season and outright refused to train at times. But no one ever questioned Classic Empire’s talent. He was the best 2-year-old in this class and has demonstrated genuine racing toughness in his last two starts.
“Honestly, I think our horse probably got more respect out of that performance [from] anyone who really watched the [Derby], because he overcame a lot just to finish fourth,” Casse said Monday. “I’m proud of him, and look forward to trying Always Dreaming again.”
Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee will also take another go at Always Dreaming after charging within a few lengths of him down the stretch at Churchill Downs. The Steve Asmussen-trained horse was a 33-1 underdog, but Asmussen gushed about the effort he delivered against a field full of more accomplished opponents. Fellow Asmussen trainee Hence, who suffered through a rough trip in the Derby, will also make the journey to Baltimore.
Gunnevera, perhaps the best late charger in the group, is also likely to run. Trainer Antonio Sano said he will put Mike Smith aboard after Javier Castellano rode the colt to a seventh-place finish in the Derby.
Other Preakness challengers include Royal Mo, who was one spot from getting into the Derby and who also arrived at Pimlico on Tuesday, and Conquest Mo Money, a strong runner-up to Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby.
Lexington Stakes winner Senior Investment and Wood Memorial third-place finisher Cloud Computing are both probable for the race, and Illinois Derby winner Multiplier is also a strong possibility.
If all run, the Preakness field would stand at 10 horses. One thing we know for sure—Always Dreaming is waiting.