05/17/2017 4:00PM

Watchmaker: Hard to find fault in Always Dreaming

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Barbara D. Livingston
Always Dreaming, with trainer Todd Pletcher at Pimlico, figures to get a good pace setup in Saturday's Preakness.

Saturday’s Preakness might simply be a matter of Always Dreaming just being that much better than everyone else. He certainly was when he won the Kentucky Derby.

Always Dreaming’s superiority in the Derby goes beyond the fact that after being involved in a strong early pace, he ran away from his 19 opponents to score by a decisive 2 3/4 lengths. A deeper appreciation of how good Always Dreaming really was two weeks ago is gained when you consider how soundly beaten the six others involved in the early pace were. Here they are, with their margins of defeat:

Battle of Midway – 7 3/4 lengths

Gormley – 14 1/4 lengths

Irish War Cry – 16 1/2 lengths

Fast and Accurate – 28 3/4 lengths

Irap – 40 3/4 lengths

State of Honor – 45 3/4 lengths

This is the measure of how well Always Dreaming ran in the Derby. You needed a search party to find everyone else who was around him early, and yet he won off.

The scary thing is that there is far less pace pressure for Always Dreaming in the Preakness. Conquest Mo Money, a game second in the Arkansas Derby after being with a strong early pace, has some speed. But after that? Classic Empire and Cloud Computing are capable of showing positional speed, but neither is what you would call a true speed horse. Every other horse in this Preakness is a deep closer.

Those digging for Preakness vulnerabilities in Always Dreaming might note that he won the Derby on the sort of wet track he will not see Saturday. I feel that’s the wrong place to look. Five of the last seven wet-track Kentucky Derby winners came back to finish first or second on a fast track in the Preakness. And it’s not like Always Dreaming is a wet-track specialist. The Derby was his first start on an off track, and he romped on dry tracks in his first three starts this year, including a five-length blowout score in the Florida Derby.

:: DRF Bets $20 Refund – If your horse finishes 2nd to Always Dreaming in the Preakness! Opt-In Now 

One aspect worth thinking about is Todd Pletcher, Always Dreaming’s trainer, and specifically Pletcher’s record on quick turnarounds like the 14 days between the Derby and Preakness.

Pletcher is a mortal lock to be a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2021. He is so good at so many aspects of his craft. But one thing Pletcher hardly ever does is run horses back as quickly as the Derby and Preakness require. It might or might not be a coincidence, but the recent wet-track Derby winner who fared the worst in the Preakness was Super Saver, Pletcher’s only other Derby winner. Super Saver finished eighth in Baltimore, beaten almost 12 lengths.

Let’s look closer. According to DRF Formulator, over the past five years through last week, Pletcher had 5,210 starts and won 1,243 of them (an amazing 24 percent). However, only 29 of those 5,210 starts (a microscopic 0.5 percent) were with horses going long on dirt with just 10 to 16 days between starts (I extended the days between starts slightly to get a larger sample size). Five of those horses won (17 percent) for an ROI of $0.81.

Only six of those 29 starts came in graded stakes going long on dirt off the same 10- to 16-day turnaround. Two of those starters won – San Pablo off the full 16 days at 4-5 in the 2012 Iselin and Unlimited Budget off 15 days at even-money in the 2012 Demoiselle.

Narrowing down this search to Grade 1 races, Pletcher is 0 for 2 over the last five years – Caixa Eletronica finished eighth, beaten 13 1/2 lengths, at 13-1 in the 2012 Whitney, and Dontbetwithbruno finished sixth, beaten 28 1/4 lengths, albeit at 66-1, in the 2015 Haskell.

Should the fact that Pletcher almost never runs top horses back in two weeks put you off Always Dreaming if you otherwise like him? It doesn’t for me. Just because Pletcher doesn’t do this, iffy results from a small sample size don’t mean he can’t do this. Besides, Always Dreaming is a different individual with a much more favorable pace setup in the Preakness than in the Derby, which he won so decisively. That’s the deciding factor for me.

I think Classic Empire might well complete a tiny Preakness exacta. Classic Empire’s fourth in the Derby was remarkable considering the combination of his brutal trip and his previously having only one representative outing in five months.

Always Dreaming and Classic Empire are the only two I will use in the Preakness in multirace wagers, but I’ll also use Conquest Mo Money and Gunnevera underneath in vertical wagers. An anticipated deliberate pace could help Conquest Mo Money get a piece, and I’m hoping that Gunnevera didn’t like the track in the Derby, though he might also be tailing off.