05/20/2017 8:26PM

Pletcher gracious in defeat as Always Dreaming disappoints

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Debra A. Roma
Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming faded to eighth in the Preakness after setting the early pace.

BALTIMORE – Just a few years ago, the disappointment would have been far more profound. But with American Pharoah having ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought with his sweep two years ago, perhaps it was a bit easier for racing fans and the connections of vanquished Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming to accept defeat Saturday in the 142nd Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

That does not fully explain why Todd Pletcher stood calmly where the paddock runway meets the Pimlico dirt, surrounded by a dozen media members, in the immediate aftermath of what had to be one of the most dispiriting losses of his illustrious training career. A gracious winner two weeks beforehand at Churchill Downs, Pletcher was a genuine stand-up guy Saturday, giving a clinic on how to conduct yourself when things don’t go your way by answering rapid-fire questions without the slightest hint of irritation.

Always Dreaming, with John Velazquez riding for Pletcher, faded badly as the 6-5 favorite to finish eighth of 10 starters after being hounded on the early lead by Classic Empire, who proceeded to finish second by a head to the winner, Cloud Computing.

It was nearly 14 lengths back to Always Dreaming, and just like that, the chances of a 13th Triple Crown were gone.

“Watching them come by the first time, [Always Dreaming] was pulling Johnny to the lead but not as aggressively as you might expect,” said Pletcher. “We anticipated Classic Empire might take it to us, and he did. When he hooked us and the horse didn’t respond the way you’d want, I knew then we didn’t have it today.”

Under different circumstances, the defeat might have been more stunning, but Pletcher long has shown a preference for spacing his horses’ races farther apart than the mere two weeks between the Derby and Preakness.

From his 5,210 career starters (through last week), only 29 had run back in two-turn dirt races with 10 to 16 days between starts, with five of them winning (for an $0.81 ROI). Pletcher repeatedly said that if it weren’t for Always Dreaming being a Derby winner, the chances were good he wouldn’t have asked the colt for such a quick turnaround. In fact, when Super Saver – Pletcher’s prior Derby winner in 2010 – won in the Churchill slop with a nice trip that was very similar to what Always Dreaming got two weeks ago, he too came up noticeably empty in the Preakness, finishing eighth.

Always Dreaming “didn’t seem to relish the track, but I don’t really think that was it,” Pletcher told Pimlico publicity. “It was just that he put so much into the Derby that it wasn’t meant to be.”

Velazquez, for his part, walked back briskly to the jockeys’ room after quickly dismounting, barely breaking stride to answer a handful of questions about the subpar performance.

He told Pimlico publicity: “He just got beat. I didn’t have it. I knew I was in trouble on the backstretch when the other horse [Classic Empire] got to him, almost head to head, and engaged him. I knew I didn’t have it. That’s horse racing. He didn’t have it.”

Since American Pharoah in 2015 became the 12th Triple Crown in racing history and the first since Affirmed in 1978, the Derby winner is now 0 for 2 in the Preakness. Nyquist ran third in the 2016 Preakness after capturing the Derby and did not run back in the third leg, the Belmont Stakes.

Pletcher said a decision on whether to run Always Dreaming back in the June 10 Belmont at his primary base, Belmont Park, will be made in due course. “We’ll let the emotion of this wear off and see how he comes out of it,” he said. “I can’t answer that now.”

Pletcher is now 0 for 9 in the Preakness, and Velazquez is 0 for 8. The second leg of the Triple Crown remains one of the few great American races neither has won.

“We’ll savor the Derby victory,” said Pletcher.