BALTIMORE — Anytime a trainer of one of the favorites has to come out and say that it’s not a two-horse race you can bet that it’s actually probably a two-horse race.
The 142nd Preakness Stakes, set for a 6:48 p.m ET post time on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, has at this point nearly morphed into a match race between Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and Classic Empire.
At Churchill Downs, Always Dreaming glided down the stretch ahead of the pack, barely a speck of mud on him. Classic Empire, having been throttled out of the gate and bumped at every turn, was coated and fatigued and trudged to a fourth-place finish.
Now everyone wants to see whether Classic Empire, a 3-1 choice on the morning line, can stop the 5-4 favorite Always Dreaming’s Triple Crown chase before reaching the Belmont.
“Gates open, things happen,” Always Dreaming trainer Todd Pletcher said.
“It’s not a two-horse race,” Classic Empire trainer Mark Casse said. “There’s some other nice horses in this race. If there is too much concentration (on the two favorites) it could set it up for somebody else.”
After all the No. 2 finisher at the Derby, a sturdy and consistent colt named Lookin at Lee, is here. He’s a 10-1 third favorite, starting from the No. 9 gate. In Kentucky, he worked his way up the rail late, almost unnoticed. He hasn’t won a race since early August of last year, but if Classic Empire and Always Dreaming exert too much energy early he’ll likely be there at the end.
“Lee is going to run his race every time,” said Scott Blasi, assistant trainer to Steve Asmussen, who also has Hence, at 20-1, in the race. “He always does. He tries so hard.”
Blasi said the Preakness has traditionally had a faster early pace — in part because other horses are gunning for the Derby winner — and the weather on Saturday is expected to be dry and in the 70s. That could mean that Always Dreaming and Classic Empire, breaking from the 4 and 5 gates respectively, will duel early and fade later. That’s a perfect scenario for Lookin at Lee.
“He’s proven he belongs,” Blasi said. “He had a troubled trip in the Arkansas Derby or things might have gone a little different there. That being said, he brings his game every time. He’s a blue-collar horse and probably easy to overlook, but not for us.”
Lookin At Lee jockey Corey Lanerie admitted his horse will need “help” and “luck” because Always Dreaming “looked mighty tough.” But he likes where he’s sitting, and knows that when you’re dealing with 3-year-old horses, there’s so much you don’t know.
“Always Dreaming hasn’t had many obstacles to face,” he said. “Maybe he’s that good that he won’t encounter trouble. But you never know.”
Cloud Computing, who opted out of the Kentucky Derby and comes to Baltimore fresh, is 12-1 on the morning line and is trainer Chad Brown’s first Preakness starter. Brown won the Eclipse Award as top trainer last year.
Conquest Mo Money, at 15-1, also skipped the Derby. Casse said he’s been impressed with how the fast-rising colt, who was sold for $8,500 last fall, has trained here.
“I think Conquest Mo Money has been compromised a couple times in his last three starts, and he’s probably a little better than he looks on paper,” Casse said.
Both Pletcher and Casse have said this week that they expect Conquest Mo Money to end up setting the pace.
Gunnevera, seventh in Kentucky and also listed at 15-1 on the morning line, may be out there, too. Mike Smith is taking over the mount — Javier Castellano will move over to Cloud Computing, as he regularly rides for Brown — and has often been willing to go out to the lead at Pimlico. Antonio Sano, who left Venezuela, where he was the top trainer, after being kidnapped twice, says his horse is stronger now than he was two weeks ago.
This is how trainers talk in the days leading to a race, of course. The horse won’t have a chance to contradict them until they race, anyway, so optimism flows.
Though there are moments of plain truth.
“To me,” Casse said Thursday after praising Always Dreaming and Conquest Mo Money, “the rest, they’ll need to come with a game higher than they’ve shown so far.”
So call it a two-horse race with a possible interloper — and, as always, the real chance that nothing, after all this talk, will go as planned.