05/21/2017 7:32AM

Watchmaker: Appreciate Cloud Computing's Preakness win

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Debra A. Roma
Cloud Computing got his first stakes victory in the Preakness.

BALTIMORE – It will take no time for folks to belabor the point that Cloud Computing got an absolutely perfect trip in his upset victory in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes here at Pimlico. This has already happened on social media and will continue into the night.

But while Cloud Computing did indeed benefit from a great setup, I hope people avoid the trap of denigrating this colt for it, or painting him as some sort of lucky opportunist. Cloud Computing is a quality horse and, in fact, had a break owed to him.

Cloud Computing made his debut only last February on the now-defunct inner track at Aqueduct, and the Preakness was only his fourth start. When he was second in the Gotham Stakes in just the second start of his career and his first around two turns, he was much closer to a destructive early pace than the opponent who beat him that day.

When Cloud Computing finished third in the Wood Memorial in his start before the Preakness, he was the victim of a passive ride that found him much farther off the early pace than he should have been. And this approach in the Wood Memorial was egregiously ill-timed because it occurred on a day when the main track at Aqueduct was profoundly biased toward speed horses. In other words, Cloud Computing’s third-place finish in the Wood wasn’t even close to a true representation of his ability. It was actually a good effort considering how he was so up against the bias.

So, Cloud Computing isn’t some sort of fluky clunk-up artist who had the moment of his life in the Preakness. Maybe the Preakness will be the high point of his career; we just don’t know. But Cloud Computing is not a fluke. He is a lightly raced, talented horse who, after facing adverse circumstances in his first two stakes starts, was good enough to capitalize when he finally did get a favorable setup Saturday. And let’s not forget, dozens of horses get tremendous setups every day and don’t win.

That said, you’d have to be heartless not to feel bad for Classic Empire. He had a terrible trip in the Kentucky Derby, and when you also consider that the Arkansas Derby was his only representative outing in five months, his fourth-place Kentucky Derby finish was a terrific effort.

On Saturday, Classic Empire went after Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming from the start, hounded him, and raced him into defeat on the far turn. Classic Empire turned for home with a clear lead and looked every bit the winner, but all that dirty work he did early had to take a toll, and he fell just a head shy of holding on. And let’s not also forget the significant point that Classic Empire was running back in two weeks and making his third start in five weeks, while Cloud Computing was dead fresh and making his first start in six weeks.

I know it’s small consolation to his connections because the difference between winning and narrowly losing a Triple Crown race is enormous, but Classic Empire ran a winning race in defeat.

Of course, the big disappointment in the Preakness was Always Dreaming, who tired to finish eighth, beaten 14 lengths. Given that Always Dreaming shook off major pace pressure in his decisive Kentucky Derby win, leaving the six opponents who were with him well up the track, and barring any injury or real excuse that might surface in the coming days, one can only speculate that there are but two explanations for Always Dreaming’s dud Saturday:

The first (and most likely to me) is that the Derby took much more out of Always Dreaming than anyone thought. In retrospect, it couldn’t have been easy to beat the six involved in that strong Derby pace with him so soundly.

The other possible explanation is that running horses back on short rest, even Kentucky Derby winners, is just not something Todd Pletcher, the trainer of Always Dreaming, does often, or especially well. I addressed this with detailed statistics in my pre-Preakness column, which can be found here.

I concluded in that column that I wasn’t going to let a small sample size affect my handicapping judgment. That might have been a mistake. Small sample size or not, and as extraordinarily talented as he is in most other areas, I will be very leery of Pletcher-trained horses coming off short layoffs going forward.

One thing I still do not buy, and I say this emphatically, is that Always Dreaming benefitted from a rail bias at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Derby, as did Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee.

There was a big rail bias at Churchill the day before on Oaks Day. But too many horses won or ran well racing away from the rail on Derby Day for me to buy into a rail bias. As noted above, there are other, more tangible, far less subjective reasons for Always Dreaming’s flop in the Preakness. And please don’t use Lookin At Lee as some sort of barometer for track bias. Lookin At Lee had one of the greatest, ground-saving (not rail-biased) trips that a stretch runner could ever hope for in the Derby. He didn’t get that same dream trip in the Preakness.

• Whitmore certainly emerged as a force once he was asked to do nothing more than sprint, with Saturday’s Maryland Sprint being his fifth straight victory and third straight stakes score since he was cut back to shorter distances. (As an aside, I’ve always felt Whitmore could be a top-notch sprinter; check my comments on him in last year’s Derby Watch.)

But if Whitmore were mine, I’d wheel him back in the Met Mile on Belmont Stakes Day. I think Whitmore’s success has as much, if not more, to do with him cutting back to one turn as it does cutting back to six or 6 1/2 furlongs. Besides, how many opportunities do one-turn horses have to go after a purse like the Met Mile’s $1.2 million?

• Count me among the many impressed with Yoshida’s dominating win in Saturday’s James W. Murphy Stakes. Yes, Yoshida had a good setup with an unsustainably fast early pace. But let’s not forget that Yoshida got his maiden win last time out in his first start this year (and only second career start) on the front end. So, that he came from way out if it Saturday with the flourish that he did, even if set up pace-wise, speaks to his quality.

• Recruiting Ready was also pretty darn good in one of the other Preakness undercard stakes for 3-year-olds, the Chick Lang. Recruiting Ready’s connections deserve credit for keeping this colt sprinting because that’s what he does best, and he’s getting better.

• Anyone with an appreciation of racing’s history knows that the Pimlico Special has a storied one. Unfortunately, the race isn’t what it used to be. And yet I can’t help but think the Pimlico Special could be reborn with a new, carefully chosen spot on the calendar other than mid-May, even if it meant weakening the Black-Eyed Susan card (and yes, I’m aware that it might be a little awkward running the Pimlico Special at, say, Laurel, but seeing a once-great race diminished is worse).

But the Pimlico Special still has a name that carries some weight, and with a game victory in Friday’s renewal, Shaman Ghost added that name to a career résumé that’s really quite astounding. Think about some of the races Shaman Ghost has won. He took the Queen’s Plate, the Brooklyn, the Woodward, the Santa Anita Handicap, and now the Pimlico Special, and he’s not done yet. Shaman Ghost isn’t a Hall of Famer. He’s a good, hard-knocking handicap horse who should only engender admiration. But there are some horses in the Hall of Fame who do not have the CV he does.

• Terra Promessa was supposed to win Friday’s Allaire duPont Distaff off her sharp second to Stellar Wind in last month’s Apple Blossom. But her overwhelming score in it not only showed how special Stellar Wind is, it also demonstrated how effective Terra Promessa can be when she gets away from her division’s heavyweights. And the interesting thing about Terra Promessa’s duPont Distaff performance is that while it looked like she was cruising on an easy early lead, she actually posted interior fractions that were substantially faster than the Pimlico Special run just two races later – 47.13 seconds and 1:10.91 vs. 47.92 and 1:12.41 in the Pimlico Special.

• Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan didn’t have nearly the star power the Kentucky Oaks had two weeks ago. But it did resemble the Oaks in the respect that it featured a complete early-pace meltdown.

While it remains to be seen if anyone out of the Black-Eyed Susan goes on to make an impact at the top of the 3-year-old filly division, just know that even if she was the prime beneficiary of the pace collapse, Actress was better than her win margin of a head would suggest.

Actress, a maiden going in who ran well in her two starts at Gulfstream, was flying late on the far turn and in the midst of making a deft inside/out move. Then, for some reason, she was aimed at splitting the two leaders instead of just going around them. This questionable move didn’t work, and Actress was checked at a total loss of momentum. It is to her credit that she regrouped and successfully rerallied.