LOUISVILLE — Atypically for a Todd Pletcher horse, Always Dreaming will hurry on to Pimlico now. He should be snug in the traditional Kentucky Derby winner’s stall in Baltimore no later than Tuesday if the star trainer’s Sunday morning plans come true. That will leave him at least 11 days to cozy up to the 142nd Preakness Stakes.
By contrast, Pletcher’s previous Derby winner, Super Saver in 2010, arrived on May 12 for a Preakness that ran on May 15. (He finished eighth.) Then again, Super Saver didn’t spend the run-up to the Derby so fresh and eager that he required the esoteric equine implement much-discussed on Sunday morning at Churchill Downs: draw reins.
After five gallops with draw reins, Always Dreaming knows some draw reins.
“I think the fact that he was so headstrong when he got here, that I don’t think staying here for another week is going to be an advantage,” Pletcher said Sunday morning at Churchill Downs. “I don’t think going to Belmont for a week and then moving again is an advantage. So just looking at what the options are, I think, Pimlico generally, there’s not a lot of horses training there. I think it’ll be a quiet environment, give us time to get him settled in, and if we need to make any adjustments, we’ll have time to do that.”
It’s the first Preakness chess move for a trainer who has made some doozies this year with Always Dreaming, and for a trainer noted for giving his horses time, amid a Triple Crown series that purposely limits that time so as to search for tiptop mettle. Now Always Dreaming will attempt the puzzle of the two major races within two weeks, with ample hints that he won’t mind.
“He’s got a lot in the tank,” said Nick Bush, the exercise rider who commandeered both Derby preparations and draw reins. “I don’t think we’ve seen anywhere near the bottom.”
Horse connections often say such things, but Always Dreaming really does qualify for the cliche “lightly raced,” and his campaign has majored in interesting twists. While four of his Derby rivals tried the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November, among other races, Always Dreaming didn’t race from Aug. 20 to Jan. 25, as the owners switched trainers from Dominick Schettino to Pletcher in early September after a third-place showing in June at Belmont Park and a second-place showing in August at Saratoga.
Then, after he got himself in shape at Jim Crupi’s farm in Ocala, Fla., Pletcher refrained from running him in the Fountain Of Youth Stakes on March 4 at Gulfstream Park near Miami, opting for an allowance race elsewhere on that day’s card, and throwing all the chips for Derby qualification into April 1 and the Florida Derby, which Always Dreaming dominated.
“I really felt that he had managed the horse in a very unique way,” said co-owner Vincent Viola, “and I thought the horse was showing us, through his response, through his training, that he was progressing. And the anecdotal evidence was validating that. He was gaining weight. He was higher on his toes. He was alert and engaged. You know, horses, they know their business, and he, after the race, and up to the Florida Derby, had displayed that …
“I mean, making the choice to not going for the Fountain Of Youth, and going to a mile-and-an-eighth allowance race, I don’t think the efficiency, if not brilliance of that, genius of that, should be underestimated. I said to Todd, ‘I will not be surprised if other trainers look and study this campaign.’ Because this horse is fresh. You guys saw it. Now, we were all concerned he might be too fresh.”
With that concern came the draw reins, which Pletcher patiently explained on Sunday. Professorially, he said: “So basically draw reins, they’re designed so they go into the girth, which is what holds the saddle in place, so they go from the girth through the bit back to the rider’s hands. And basically what it does is, it keeps the horse’s head down, and when the horse pulls, he’s not only pulling against the rider’s hands, he’s also pulling against the girth. It gives the rider added leverage and is able to keep the horse more under control and keep the horse framed up with his head down instead of up.
“When Always Dreaming gets aggressive, he knows that if he puts his head up, he can break the rider’s hold a little bit, and that allows him to go at a faster pace. So that’s what the horse wanted to do, and we didn’t want him to be able to do that in his gallops leading up to the race. So the draw reins basically gave more leverage, more control.”
Still, Pletcher reckons that fewer of 10 percent of his vast array of horses ever require draw reins, but that at Pimlico, he’ll keep using them, at least at first, even as he plans only to gallop, and not to breeze, his second Derby champion. “It didn’t appear to be a gut-wrenching race for him,” Pletcher said. He sees ideal versatility in Always Dreaming’s six races, with wins in the last four and commanding wins in the last two (Florida Derby by five lengths, Kentucky Derby by 2 3/4). He believes enthusiasm welled slowly for Always Dreaming because the first two wins came on slow tracks.
And while he never did feel certain why the colt felt such fervency in Louisville — was it the light during those 8:30 workouts? — he’s allowing ample time for Baltimore.
“He’s run well at Belmont,” Pletcher said. “He’s run well at Saratoga. He’s run well at Tampa. He’s run well twice at Gulfstream on two very different tracks. You know, the allowance win was on a very deep, cuppy, dry surface and the Florida Derby was on a fast, really fast, surface, and then here on a sloppy surface. So it’s great when you don’t have to worry about all the variables that you can’t control.”