Powell: Always Dreaming deserving of three-year-old title
I don't make up my mind on any Eclipse Award votes since I wait for all the major stakes races to still be run. Yes, the Breeders' Cup carries extraordinary weight as many divisions are decided on the track, but that doesn't always work out as we saw in a couple of divisions this year.
In the three-year-old male division, it looks like it will come down to a battle between first-half leader ALWAYS DREAMING and second-half leader WEST COAST. Many of these decisions are influenced by recency; what we just saw seems to be more important than what happened months ago.
Always Dreaming began his three-year-old season with new trainer Todd Pletcher down at Gulfstream Park and was brilliant right from the start. He broke his maiden going two turns at Tampa Bay Downs by 11 lengths then came back to Gulfstream Park and won an allowance race by four lengths on a very tiring track that was not kind to speed.
With no Kentucky Derby (G1) eligibility points, it was all or nothing for Always Dreaming in the Florida Derby (G1). He showed an ability to rate off the pace and pounced on his rivals turning for home. The final margin of five lengths was impressive and the final time of 1:47 2/5 was even more impressive.
On to Kentucky, he received a masterful ride from Johnny Velazquez when he let the early speed clear then deftly moved to the outside where he settled beautifully. At the top of the stretch, it looked like he was in trouble when Wood Memorial (G2) winner IRISH WAR CRY loomed boldly but Always Dreaming kicked on and opened a decisive lead that he carried to the wire.
Winning the Derby meant running in the Preakness (G1), something trainer Todd Pletcher does not like to do off two-weeks rest, but he had no choice. Instead of going to the front, Always Dreaming was challenged hard by CLASSIC EMPIRE going into the first turn and wound up tiring down on the inside.
Always Dreaming was freshened up just a bit and came back in the Jim Dandy (G2) where he battled for the lead down on the inside before weakening. Horses will fool you sometimes as he galloped out well and bounced right back in his training, looking like a horse that might have needed a race.
Instead, he ran poorly in the Travers (G1) and it was found after the race that Always Dreaming suffered from severe gastric ulcers. His season was over and he should be back next year.
In the Travers, Always Dreaming was beaten decisively by West Coast and here is where the Eclipse Award process gets dicey. West Coast started out at Santa Anita this year and broke his maiden second time out going two turns as the 1-20 favorite. With expectations like that, Bob Baffert shipped him to Keeneland where he missed by a head in the Lexington (G3).
Derby Fever had subsided and he went back to Santa Anita and won an allowance race against older horses on the day that the Preakness was run. Three weeks later, he shipped to Belmont, not for the Belmont S. (G1) but the un-graded Easy Goer, which he won easily. Baffert shipped him back west and he took down the Los Alamitos Derby (G3) as the 2-5 favorite.
With the exception of the Easy Goer, none of West Coast's running times were especially fast so he somehow went to Saratoga for the Travers under the radar despite Baffert pulling off the same feat the year before with the unheralded, at that time, ARROGATE.
Dismissed at 6-1, West Coast, just like Arrogate, gunned to the front and never looked back and won by over three lengths. He followed that up with a 7 1/4-length win in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) and now went to the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) with a championship in his sights.
Always Dreaming's resume showed a win in the Florida Derby and a decisive win in the 20-runner Kentucky Derby. Two Grade 1 stakes wins, but the Kentucky Derby is the one that everyone points for and he beat them all. The rest of his season went downhill and it was on this slide that West Coast emerged with his wins in the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby.
To me, the Kentucky Derby carries more weight than the Travers and the Florida Derby, before the war for attrition takes its toll, is more important than the Pennsylvania Derby. Going into the Breeders' Cup Classic I thought it was close, but Always Dreaming was the leader of the division as I can't help holding it against West Coast and Baffert for skipping the Preakness, Belmont and Haskell Invitational (G1).
The Classic was run and West Coast was a solid third, ahead of the other three-year-olds in the race, but none of them were in the championship picture. Being beaten by GUN RUNNER and COLLECTED should not hurt him too bad, but was it enough?
I say it was not and Always Dreaming, by the narrowest of margins, gets my vote, not filed yet, for champion three-year-old male of 2017.
(Leslie Martin/Adam Coglianese Photography)