A dozen years ago, Always Dreaming would have been an automatic throw out for handicappers knowledgeable about the history of Kentucky Derby winners.
After all, the colt’s race prior to last Saturday was in the April 1 Florida Derby and, for years, any horse with an extended break before the Kentucky Derby was dismissed with a harrumph and something to the effect: “You do know that nobody has won the Derby off a five-week layoff since Needles in 1956.”
Barbaro ended the streak in 2006 and now Always Dreaming is the third horse in the last five years to win the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby with five weeks in between. Orb turned the trick 2013 and Nyquist duplicated the feat last year.
“When I did it, it was voodoo,” Barbaro trainer Michael Matz once said.
This year, the Louisiana Derby was also April 1 and major prep races in Kentucky, New York, and California were April 8. The Arkansas Derby was the only major prep three weeks out and Oaklawn Park has no plans to change its schedule. Keeneland’s Blue Grass was also three weeks prior until the track returned to a dirt surface and raised the purse in 2015.
In the 1980s, the Arkansas Derby and New York’s Wood Memorial were only two weeks before the Kentucky Derby and many other major races were a week earlier. In the 1990s, Oaklawn and others moved their race back a week. New York backed up another week in 2005, citing requests by horsemen.
That said, remember the most prominent and successful trainers continue to support the Arkansas Derby, the success of Nyquist and Always Dreaming is not a predictor of Derbies to come, and the Oaklawn race was perfect preparation for American Pharoah’s Triple Crown assault in 2015. Also, from 2006-2014, six Arkansas Derby runners finished in the money in Louisville, including winner Super Saver in 2010.
On Saturday, Arkansas Derby winner Classic Empire was a troubled fourth at Churchill Downs and Lookin At Lee, third in Arkansas, was second. Norm Casse, assistant to Classic Empire trainer Mark Casse, tweeted Monday that he was excited about taking the colt to the May 20 Preakness although his father has been more cautious because of an in-race collision that almost closed the colt’s right eye.
Trainer Steve Asmussen says the Preakness is “definitely a possibility” for Lookin At Lee, but many Derby runners will pass and there will be new shooters.
Preakness winner Exaggerator was one of only two Derby participants among Nyquist’s 10 opponents in Baltimore.
The Daily Racing Form’s knowledgeable Mike Watchmaker wrote that of all the Derby also-rans, Classic Empire piqued his interest the most. “Classic Empire was banged around badly at the start, putting him farther off the early pace than he is accustomed to. He also had trouble in the stretch,” he wrote. “When you combine this with the fact that Classic Empire’s preparation for the Derby was so compromised by a foot abscess and misbehavior, I think he did remarkably well to finish a willing fourth. … I think he’ll move forward off the Derby in a big way.”
Almost 7-1 at Churchill, Classic Empire will be a close second choice to Always Dreaming in the Preakness.
In effect, trainer Todd Pletcher is obligated to run the Derby winner in the Preakness, but the short turnaround goes against his druthers — a point discussed during a February review of his 1-of-45 Derby record.
Watchmaker said records show that during the last five years, Pletcher has started only two horses in Grade I stakes going a route of ground on dirt after layoffs of 12 to 15 days. They were eighth and sixth, beaten more than 40 lengths.
Already, Pletcher has mentioned the two-week turnaround contributed to his other Derby winner, Super Saver, finishing eighth in the Preakness.
But, no healthy Derby winner has skipped the Preakness since Spend A Buck in 1985.
Harry King is sports columnist for GateHouse Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org