From the day they were pointed toward a reunion at the Preakness until early Saturday night, Classic Empire and Always Dreaming were, it seemed, inseparable.
Two weeks ago, at the Kentucky Derby, they were among the top picks for the Triple Crown's first leg. Classic Empire, the morning-line favorite, finished fourth. Always Dreaming, the final-odds favorite, came in first.
On Wednesday, the drama only built. In the draw for the Preakness, Always Dreaming took the No. 4 post, and Classic Empire No. 5. Not even a random lineup of 10 horses could keep the two from breaking side by side at Pimlico Race Course.
"Hopefully, they both have good trips, break good and it could be interesting," Mark Casse, who trains Classic Empire, said Wednesday. "They could go at it right from the start."
There was no waiting. After a clean break from the starting gate, it was clear who was a contender and pretender. Ahead of the pack entering the first turn were Always Dreaming, holding inside position, and Classic Empire, not more than a length behind.
It seemed predestined: Who could stop Always Dreaming, the 6-5 final-odds favorite, and Classic Empire, the slight underdog at 2-1, from completing a duel for the ages at the wire?
The answer had hung just behind them for most of the race. After an opening 3/4 of a mile in which their positions never changed, Classic Empire overtook Always Dreaming midway through the second turn. Then, as they hit the homestretch, Cloud Computing brushed by Always Dreaming and took aim at the leader.
The Chad Brown-trained colt was not an especially long shot, but there were doubts about how he could hang with the two favorites. After all, he hadn't faced either in the Derby, with Brown removing Cloud Computing from consideration altogether in late April.
"We were patient and didn't throw an inexperienced horse in a 20-horse field," co-owner Seth Klarman said after Saturday's race.
As Cloud Computing chased down Classic Empire and distanced himself from Always Dreaming, it was clear who was stronger. And it wasn't either of the two horses most had expected.
Black-Eyed Susan win emotional for jockey from Maryland: Nik Juarez celebrated his victory in Friday's Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico Race Course by taking his father, Calixto, and Taylor Logue, a former high school wrestling teammate at Winters Mill High in Carroll County, out to dinner.
Juarez said he was in bed in his father's home in Westminster by 10:30 Friday night, was up at 3 a.m. and driving up to Monmouth Park in New Jersey, where he was scheduled to ride a full slate of races on Saturday.
"I was on the back of a horse by 7:30 in the morning," Juarez said in a telephone interview Saturday. "I got on three horses [for their morning workouts] and then I got just an hour of sleep in and then I ride nine [races] today."
The victory on 12-1 shot Actress was not only the most significant of his short riding career, it was also the most emotional, given his roots in Maryland.
"The Black-Eyed Susan in itself is one of the most prestigious races in horse racing," Juarez said. "For me to win that, being at home, it was one of the most heartfelt races I've ever won just because my family and myself being from Maryland."
Juarez, 23, is on something of a roll. Along with the narrow win in Baltimore — Actress beat Lights of Medina by a head — Juarez won four races in the opening weekend at Monmouth last week, making him the leading rider there so far.
"Hopefully there's a snowball effect," he said. "I just take it a day at a time, one race at a time."
Juarez said he still takes what he learned as a high school wrestler to the racetrack.
"It's been a lot of hard work, it's not as easy at it seems, there's been more downs than ups," Juarez said. "Regardless, through hard work, my wrestling coach John Lowe always instilled in me a mental toughness and getting to the next step. It's not an easy game. We risk our lives every day. This is what we do to win a race like that, that's why we work hard."
Friday's win was a bit of redemption for Juarez.
One of the most difficult periods of Juarez's career came at the beginning of 2016, when he was suspended for failing to turn in a urine sample during a drug sweep of the Maryland jockey colony. Juarez said that he was trying to make weight at the time and couldn't find an official to give his sample to the day they were collected. Juarez had a drug test done by a private screening company.
"It was devastating," Juarez said. "Actually I lost a really big mount because that happened. For me to get my license back it took nearly three weeks because we had a really big blizzard. It was crazy. For me to get my name cleared up, it was like starting all over again. Like I said, you've got to be mentally tough, you've got to keep doing your thing, working hard, working seven days. Just keep your head held high because you know who you are."
Record crowd: An announced 140,327 came to Pimlico on Saturday, the fourth straight Preakness Day to attract a record crowd.
The mark bested last year's announced 135,256, who braved inclement weather — the 2016 race was the first run on sloppy track conditions since 1983 — to watch Exaggerator hand Nyquist his first loss in nine career starts.
Saturday's total handle was $97.186 million, also topping last year's mark of $94.127 million.
Attendance at the racetrack has rebounded strongly since 2009, when the Maryland Jockey Club instituted a bring-your-own-beer ban in the Pimlico infield. That year, only 77,850 came; only two Preakness Days in the past four decades have had worse attendance.
Busy man: Maryland's leading jockey was also its most active Saturday, if not the most successful.
Trevor McCarthy, who entered the weekend as the earnings leader at Laurel Park ($1,982,663) and Pimlico ($131,678), rode in 10 of the 14 overall races Saturday. The next closest was Florent Geroux, who finished with eight.
Horacio Karamanos, the second-leading earner at Laurel Park, had the most victories through 14 races, winning three.
100 years strong: The most valuable trophy in American sports celebrated its centennial with the Maryland Jockey Club this year.
The Woodlawn Vase, created by Tiffany and Co. in 1860 and assessed in 1983 for $1 million, was presented to the MJC in 1917 by Thomas C. Clyde, a stable owner who was director of the club. That year, the 34-inch, 29-pound, 12-ounce trophy was presented to the winner of the Preakness, Kalitan, for the first time.
A smaller sterling silver replica, which requires three months of a silversmith's hand tooling, is awarded to the winning Preakness owner on a permanent basis.