Kentucky Derby champion Always Dreaming will start the Preakness side by side with his chief rival, Classic Empire, setting up a potential duel for the ages.
Neither horse's camp backed away from hyping the matchup after Always Dreaming drew the No. 4 post and Classic Empire the No. 5 for Saturday's race, set for a 6:48 p.m. start.
"I think it's fun," Classic Empire's trainer, Mark Casse, said at Wednesday's post-position draw. "I think if they both break running, they may go at each other from the beginning. … We're going at it, so we're not going to sit back and wait."
One of Always Dreaming's owners, Vinnie Viola, spent a sleepless Tuesday night watching clips of the most famous rivalries in racing history: Affirmed-Alydar, Sunday Silence-Easy Goer, Secretariat-Sham.
"So I'm already in the mindset," Viola said happily. "Think about this. The sport has arguably two of its better 3-year-olds in a classic race, loading side by side. If I was NBC, I'd have like a close-in camera on those two horses."
But the Derby champion's trainer, Todd Pletcher, cautioned that the Preakness will not be a two-horse match race, even though Always Dreaming is a 4-5 morning-line favorite and Classic Empire a 3-1 second choice, with no other horse closer than 10-1.
"It's never that easy," he said. "It's a 10-horse race."
The post-position draw is a tense ordeal at the Kentucky Derby, where every patch of free space is precious because of the 20-horse field. An extreme inside or outside post can doom a contender before the starting gate ever opens.
But Pletcher practically shrugged off the importance of the Preakness draw.
"I'm not going to sweat the post position too much with a 10-horse field here," he said earlier in the day Wednesday. "I don't think it's nearly as important as it can be at the Derby."
He said ideally he might have wanted to be outside Classic Mo Money, a speedy horse who will break from the No. 10 post. But Always Dreaming won the Derby from the No. 5 post and the Florida Derby from the No. 4 post, so Pletcher was hardly bothered by the Preakness draw.
With his horse straddling the perfect line between composed and raring to go, he has repeatedly asserted his confidence this week. He even touched briefly on Always Dreaming's Triple Crown prospects, though he's normally loath to think past the race in front of him.
"I think first and foremost, you need talent, and he has that," Pletcher said. "But he's given us the indication, with the way he's finished his races and the way he galloped out at the Derby, that a mile and a half is within his range. He's got that high cruising speed, which can be effective in all races, especially the Belmont. So I think he checks all those boxes."
Classic Empire's handlers aren't the only ones eager for another shot at Always Dreaming. Gunnevera's trainer, Antonio Sano, hopes for a hot early pace to set up his horse for a late charge.
Gunnevera ran too wide in the Derby and never really got rolling over the mud at Churchill Downs. But he still made up ground late in the race to finish seventh. He'll start from the No. 6 post as a 15-1 co-fifth choice in the morning line.
Lookin At Lee, meanwhile, exceeded all expectations with his runner-up finish to Always Dreaming in the Derby. Trainer Steve Asmussen tasted impending victory when jockey Corey Lanerie made a late move on the leader. But Always Dreaming would not allow the gap to close.
Lookin At Lee, a veteran of 10 races who always runs hard, will start from the No. 9 post as a 10-1 third choice.
Asmussen is also bringing back Hence, who didn't react well to the mud at Churchill Downs and ran a disappointing 11th. He'll start from the No. 3 post as a 20-1 choice.
Scott Blasi, the assistant trainer for both Lookin At Lee and Hence, scanned his cellphone for reaction from Asmussen, a two-time Preakness winner.
"He said 'Perfect,' so that's my quote," Blasi noted with a laugh.
The 10-horse field is evenly divided between horses who ran in the Derby and fresh challengers.
The most talented of the newcomers is probably Conquest Mo Money, who nearly upended Classic Empire in the Arkansas Derby. Purchased for a mere $8,500 by obscure owners, Conquest Mo Money will start from the far outside as a 15-1 choice in the morning line.
When there were only two post positions left to be announced — the No. 5 and No. 10 — Conquest Mo Money co-owner Sandy McKenna said, "I hope we're on the outside." Her husband, Tom, and jockey Jorge Carreno agreed.
Seconds later, they got their wish.
"That doesn't matter to him [the horse] that he's outside," Sandy McKenna said. "He won when he was 11 in a 12-horse field and he was 12 in a 12-horse field."
Said Tom McKenna, "It gives us a chance to gauge the competition. When we get to 5 furlongs, we know how it's going to play. We won't get crowded. We call it the catbird seat."
Chad Brown-trained Cloud Computing will start from the No. 2 post as a surprising 12-1 fourth choice in the morning line. He finished third in the Wood Memorial in his most recent race, but Brown, last year's Eclipse Award winner for Top Trainer, carries automatic respect.
The rest of the new challengers are long shots to one degree or another.
Trainer Doug O'Neill's record in big races cannot be ignored, but his Preakness entry, Term of Art, is a 30-1 choice starting from the No. 7 post. Lexington Stakes winner Senior Investment is also 30-1, starting from the No. 8 post. The other 30-1 shot, Illinois Derby winner Multiplier, will start from the inside No. 1 post.
The Preakness hasn't generally been kind to horses who did not run in the Derby. Only six have won it since 1980.
"For the most part, the better horses are in the Derby, and that's why they come back to have success in this race," Pletcher said.
The great filly Rachel Alexandra was the last non-Derby horse to win the Preakness in 2009.
Speaking of Baltimore-related streaks, Pletcher is working on one of his own.
"I've got a streak going of six consecutive days eating crab cakes," he said with a big grin. "The great thing is, wherever you go here, there are crab cakes available. So I think I'll be able to keep it going."
Baltimore Sun reporter Don Markus contributed to this article.