Monday, January 22, 2018
Sports

Buzz-less Preakness perfect for Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming

BALTIMORE — This year's Preakness has lacked the buzz and lifeblood that sometimes can accompany the second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown.

There is no freak-of-nature horse.

There is no outrageous trainer.

There is no one who really believes a major upset is possible.

The civility of everyone is stifling.

It's a perfect fit for Todd Pletcher and his Kentucky Derby-winning horse, Always Dreaming.

Pletcher works his colt at 5:30 every morning, when the track is relatively quiet. He follows that up with his daily 8 a.m. news briefing, where he tells everyone how good his colt is training for Saturday's race. Then he conducts TV interviews and retreats to his office.

He has started 48 horses in the Kentucky Derby, winning twice. Always Dreaming will be his ninth Preakness start, a race he's never won.

The only reason Pletcher is at historic but crumbling Pimlico Race Course is because he has the Kentucky Derby winner. He almost never runs a horse back after two weeks.

"Our home base is Belmont, and it's a special race for us," Pletcher said of the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown. "We've kind of taken our best shot at that by taking a pass on the Preakness and using that five weeks to prepare.

"I really have tremendous respect for the Preakness. It's something I'd love to win. It's just in a lot of cases, we felt like our horses needed a little more time to recover. Not all of them have bounced out of the Derby as well as it seems Dreaming has."

Pletcher has boasted — which with him is very low key — all week about how well his horse is doing.

"He's shown us everything we were hoping for leading us back in two weeks," Pletcher said Thursday. "Tank seems full. He seems eager to go. We're just trying to keep him on the ground one more day."

The closest thing to a controversy happened before the Derby, when Pletcher changed exercise riders and added draw reins to Always Dreaming's morning workouts. Draw reins keep a horse's head lower and give more control to the rider.

Nick Bush was added as the new exercise rider because he was stronger than his predecessor and had experience with draw reins.

"It's was critical that we made the change at Churchill (Downs)," Pletcher said. "We need to get (Always Dreaming) under control, get him slowed down a little bit. Nick was able to do that."

On Monday, Pletcher saw a possible Triple Crown flash before his eyes when Always Dreaming stumbled on the Pimlico surface.

"The problem was that he was trying to buck with the draw reins on," Pletcher said. "That's why he kind of stumbled. Without the draw reins, he would have wanted to have a little breeze. What we're seeing out there gives us the same feel we were getting at Churchill. He's on it. He's feeling good. He's high energy."

Pletcher is not Always Dreaming's only trainer.

Anthony and Mary Ellen Bonomo bought the colt for $350,000 at Keeneland's September sale in 2015. Pletcher also had his eye on the colt, putting forth a losing bid on behalf of Let's Go Stables.

The horse was placed in the barn of Dominick Schettino, where Always Dreaming ran a third at Belmont and a second at Saratoga.

"We knew he was a talented horse from his races at Saratoga and Belmont," Pletcher said.

At the end of the Saratoga meet, the Bonomos merged their stable with that of childhood friend Vincent Viola, owner of the NHL's Florida Panthers, and his wife, Teresa. A lot of the horses were transferred to Pletcher, who had been training for the Violas.

"We really got the sense (how good he was) once we started breezing him," Pletcher said. "He was a very good horse. We consistently saw that all winter."

The horse's first race for Pletcher was an 111/2-length win in a maiden special race at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar this year. He then shipped to Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, where he won an optional claiming race by 4 lengths and made a huge jump to win the Florida Derby by 5 lengths.

And then there was the Kentucky Derby.

"Todd has an ability to see things in horses that nobody sees — how to change on the fly," Anthony Bonomo said. "You know great coaches are the ones that make halftime adjustments.

"His adjustment with Always Dreaming (was key), going to the draw reins and figuring out a way to calm down a young colt who just wants to run. I think that's where Todd is. He sees things that nobody sees."

Pletcher plans only to jog Always Dreaming on Friday. Some might call that consistent. Others might say it's superstitious.

"(I'm doing it) partly because that's what we did the day before the Derby," Pletcher said with a chuckle. "I'd like to take the draw reins off him and let him stretch his neck a little bit."

At the Preakness, the horses are saddled on the turf course, to the inside of the dirt course, rather than in the paddock. Pletcher, as is his policy, plans to saddle Always Dreaming in the paddock before walking him to the turf course.

He says he's not being disrespectful. It's just keeping everything in its place.

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