Anticipation brewing for Always Dreaming-Classic Empire Preakness match-up
Always Dreaming became the fifth consecutive favorite to win the Kentucky Derby and his four predecessors were all odds-on in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later. But while he may wind up as a solid favorite at Pimlico, Always Dreaming isn’t going to be the only horse taking serious win money.
Classic Empire, who was listed as the 4-1 morning line favorite but left the Kentucky Derby starting gate as the 6-1 third choice, will retain plenty of supporters following a troubled fourth-place showing. And bettors who supported Irish War Cry (9-2) and McCraken (6-1) at Churchill Downs may gravitate toward the champion 2-year-old. They were against Always Dreaming to begin with and perhaps not too impressed by his front-running win in the slop.
The match-up between Always Dreaming and Classic Empire is a major storyline surrounding the 2017 Preakness. The top-class sophomores are eligible to separate themselves from the pack in the latter stages and a thrilling duel to the wire isn’t out of the question.
Here is my take on the pros and cons surrounding the main players:
Pros: Supporters are confident we haven’t seen Always Dreaming’s best yet. The developing Todd Pletcher pupil opened the year with three easy wins, including a 5-length cakewalk in the Florida Derby (G1) in which he was under wraps by the sixteenth pole, and he put the Kentucky Derby competition away early by offering a swift turn of foot into the stretch. The Bodemeister colt wasn’t shortening stride at the wire either, galloping out with a purpose, and Always Dreaming is built to relish extended distances.
Handicappers may have been thrown off by the slow final times of his maiden and allowance wins, but Always Dreaming finished fast in those races, registering 99 and 112 BRIS Late Pace Ratings while under wraps. The improving dark bay overpowered rivals in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby and while his immaturity still shows in rambunctious morning exercises, Always Dreaming is all business in the afternoons. He’s tractable enough to sit off the speed if necessary and may have more to offer in the Preakness.
Cons: What role did the sloppy track play? Always Dreaming made the lead and got to the rail after breaking well from post 5, racing on what appeared to be the best part of a speed-friendly wet surface, and everything went his way while Classic Empire was essentially eliminated by a rough break. I know handicappers who dismiss the above description of Always Dreaming’s maiden and allowance wins – slow/average performances is the narrative – and they believe the speedy colt took advantage of favorable circumstances in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby and will be hard-pressed to deliver another big performance.
Pros: He was a race short entering the Kentucky Derby and Classic Empire is finally ready to deliver his best at age 3. The Pioneerof the Nile colt basically had to start his season over after a foot abscess surfaced following a disappointing third in the Holy Bull (G2) in early February and nearly didn’t make it back in time, returning with a courageous win in the April 15 Arkansas Derby (G1). That left only three weeks to the Kentucky Derby to rebound from an exerting effort and while fitness loomed a major concern, Classic Empire remained a legitimate win threat because the possibility existed he would prove too talented for the rest of his division.
Unfortunately for supporters, the son of Pioneerof the Nile experienced a rough start and wound up being squeezed back to 13th during the early stages of the Kentucky Derby. Mark Casse-trained colt rallied commendably for fourth and the race basically sets up as a needed tightener for the Preakness. Fans haven’t forgotten his exploits last fall, including a spectacular Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) victory in which he netted a 108 BRIS Speed Rating that towers over all Preakness rivals including Always Dreaming (102 and 100 last two starts) and Classic Empire possesses more tactical speed than he’s displayed in the last two outings. Look for him to be in a prominent spot turning for home and the 2-year-old champion could be ready to meet lofty expectations.
Cons: Classic Empire hasn’t registered a BRIS Speed rating better than 96 from three starts in 2017 and that rates as a concern for any horse who ran faster the previous year, with bettors chasing past glory instead of present form. After being all out in the Arkansas Derby and experiencing a rough trip in the Kentucky Derby, he’s being asked a lot in a short period of time making his third outing in five weeks. There’s no guarantee Classic Empire takes a big step forward Saturday and we may be forced to keep waiting for an optimal performance.