For just a moment Monday morning, the old anxiety rose inside Todd Pletcher as he watched Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming bounce onto the track at Pimlico Race Course.
As he had been in his first days at Churchill Downs in preparing for the Derby, the willful colt was so excited that he seemed ready to launch into a full-on breeze rather than the planned easy gallop.
Exercise rider Nick Bush had to yank on Always Dreaming's draw reins — the now-celebrated piece of equipment that gives a rider extra leverage — to calm the Derby champ down.
"He actually scared me a little bit, because he was feeling so good when he went out that in his first couple strides, he went to try to buck Nick off and kind of stumbled a little bit," Pletcher said. "But he got right back on his feet and after that, it was a very smooth, energetic and good gallop. Obviously, you don't want any stumbles at this stage of the game. So it gave me a little bit of a fright."
It seems Always Dreaming simply enjoys living on the edge in the run-up to big races, a formula that worked for him at the Derby.
"That was every morning at Churchill," Pletcher said, chuckling. "It's good that he's feeling this good. We're just trying to keep him healthy, and we don't want him to make a mistake."
Pletcher contrasted his experience with Always Dreaming to the relatively listless gallops his previous Derby champion, Super Saver, delivered at Pimlico in 2010.
"He was very easy to gallop, wasn't putting a whole lot into it, wasn't pulling the rider around there," Pletcher recalled. "So with Always Dreaming, we came in here wanting him to be relaxed, but we don't want him to be too relaxed. That might be the wrong sign."
Pletcher has generally gotten exactly what he wanted from the Derby champ's extended stay at Pimlico, which began last Tuesday. Always Dreaming has thrived in the relative tranquility, even when he had to gallop over a sloppy track on Saturday.
Pletcher said the colt is so perceptive that his extra energy Monday -- under a bright sunrise and cool conditions --w as likely the result of several stablemates arriving in advance of Saturday's Preakness card.
"I think he picked up on that little bit of change in atmosphere and that's why he came out a little more fired up than he has been the last few days," he said.