BALTIMORE – The lesson bears repeating: Triple Crowns are often imagined, but never won, in the two weeks following the Kentucky Derby. They are not won in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs, when a horse wears roses and humans are brought to their knees by the emotion of the moment. They are not won in the late spring mornings that follow, when the Derby winner skips over the brown earth of the racetrack in poetic gallops and history seems within reach. And they are not won in the short memories of racing fans who remember what happened just two years ago on the second Saturday in June and long for another breath of that rarified air.
Always Dreaming won the Derby two weeks ago on the first Saturday in May. He was brilliant that day, running fast through the slop at the front of the 20-horse stampede and then rolling away beneath the wire as others faltered. He scarcely slowed for a quarter mile beyond the finish line. It was the type of performance that justifiably gave rise to a creeping optimism that perhaps he was the next American Pharoah. He was shipped to Pimlico Race Track to prepare for the Preakness and his pre-dawn workouts sent turf writers scurrying for adjectives and hotel reservations in the vicinity of Belmont Park. Trainer Todd Pletcher, a man not given easily to hyperbole, said, “he’s giving us every indication that he’s going to run his best race.” Again.
In the late afternoon hours Saturday, under a grey, autumnal sky, Pletcher walked alongside Always Dreaming from his barn to the saddling paddock at Pimlico, along the homestretch rail. Fans among the announced crowd of 140,327 leaned over the fence and screamed at Pletcher and the horse. You got this Pletcher! There he is! Always Dreaming rose to his toes, like a coiled spring. Pletcher shouted to his groom, Eliasin Beltran, “Move him over.” Much like Pletcher had worried that Always Dreaming was trying to run his Kentucky Derby in the days leading to the race itself, leading to a radical change of training equipment, he was worried that the dark bay colt was a half hour ahead of schedule for the Preakness. “He’s ready,” Pletcher said, gripping a rolled-up program in his right fist. “He’s really ready.”
But the lesson bears repeating. The race will decide. The 142nd Preakness Stakes, 1 3/16 miles over a racing oval in the shadow of a decrepit old grandstand in a struggling neighborhood north of Baltimore’s city center, did not end with Always Dreaming securing the second leg of the Triple Crown and progressing one more step toward greatness. He finished eighth, soundly beaten. Nor did it end with two-year-old champion Classic Empire bouncing back from a rugged Derby to turn the tables on Always Dreaming.
It ended instead with Cloud Computing, a talented horse who had raced just three times and had never won a major race and skipped the Kentucky Derby (and might very well skip the Belmont Stakes), overhauling Classic Empire by a head in the final strides.
As ever with the Preakness, the outcome replaces one storyline with another. As Always Dreaming’s jockey, John Velazquez, scurried toward the scales for his post-race weigh-in, he delivered a terse analysis. “I didn’t have it,” he said. “That’s it.” Just a few feet away, winning trainer Chad Brown embraced majority owner Seth Klarman. Brown, last year’s Eclipse Award-winning trainer at just age 38, had never before won a Triple Crown race. Klarman, who turns 60 Sunday, was a kid who grew up on Whitney Street three blocks from Pimlico before going to Cornell and Harvard Business School and becoming wealthy as a hedge fund manager and investor who also owns a small piece of the Boston Red Sox. “I came to the Preakness many times,” said Klarman. “I saw Secretariat here. I never imagined I would ever own a horse, let alone be the winner of the Preakness.”
The horse racing world is full of intersections. Each September brings together many of the players at a sale of one-year-old horses (yearlings) at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. In the fall of 2015, Classic Empire was purchased for $475,000 at that sale by John Oxley, a then-78-year-old Oklahoma oilman who had won the 2001 Kentucky Derby with Monarchos. The yearling that would become Always Dreaming was bought for $350,000 by Brooklyn native Anthony Bonomo, who would later share ownership with his Brooklyn childhood friend, Vinnie Viola. Cloud Computing went for $200,000 to Klarman and minority partner Bill Lawrence, an Albany, New York native who has been buying horses with Klarman since they met, 13 years ago, like so many horse owners, one summer day (or night) in the racing mecca of Saratoga Springs.
Classic Empire was the early star. He won four of his first five races and last year’s juvenile championship. Always Dreaming developed more slowly, but won the Derby, which counts most. Classic Empire was clobbered leaving the starting gate in the Derby and trainer Mark Casse longed for another shot at Always Dreaming. Their potential rivalry was the secondary Preakness plotline. “The champ’s been knocked down,” said Casse before the race. “He’s going to come back and try to take back the crown.”
Cloud Computing, meanwhile, lay in the shadows. Brown, who is even more reserved than Pletcher (no small achievement) and who grew up just a few miles from Saratoga in Mechanicville, New York, didn’t send Cloud Computing to the races until a six-furlong maiden race at Aqueduct on Feb. 17, which he won. (Cloud Computing had been injured last summer at Saratoga before running a race). Less than a month later, he finished an impressive second behind J Boys Echo in the Gotham Stakes, an early Kentucky Derby prep. And on April 8, he was a distant third behind Irish War Cry and Battalion Runner in the Wood Memorial. Nevertheless, Cloud Computing had accumulated enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby. Brown and Klarman decided to pass. “We were patient and didn’t send an inexperienced horse against a 20-horse field,” said Klarman. Many owners have Derby Fever, Klarman, who has spent millions on horses over a quarter-century in the business without winning a Triple Crown race, had Derby Chill. They waited for Baltimore.
The Preakness unfolded much as expected. Always Dreaming went to the lead in the first quarter mile. He seemed to be moving, but Pletcher, watching from a box above the finish line, was immediately concerned. “He was there, but it wasn’t like he was dragging Johnny there,” said Pletcher. Before the race, Casse had promised that Classic Empire wouldn’t let Always Dreaming get comfortable in the lead. “We’re not going to sit back and wait,” he said on Wednesday before the race. “We’re going after him.” Bettors likes the prospect of a duel: Always Dreaming was the 6-5 favorite, but Classic Empire went off at a surprisingly short 2-1. Cloud Computing was a generous 13-1 and paid a sweet $28.80 to win.
Jockey Julian Leparoux put Classic Empire alongside Always Dreaming and Velazquez down the backstretch. They ran together and opened four lengths on Cloud Computing, who was in third along the rail (after longshot Term Of Art faded). When Leparoux asked Classic Empire to run leaving the three-eighths pole, Velazquez began scrubbing on Always Dreaming and received no response. Into the homestretch, Classic Empire opened up three lengths. “I thought we had the race won,” said Casse, standing on the track, ankle deep in the dirt, waiting for his horse after the race was done.
Cloud Computing had actually lost contact with the leaders when Leparoux moved on Classic Empire. “I was worried,” said Brown. “But those were two good horses going pretty fast ahead of us.” But just as Classic Empire seemed home free, Cloud Computing began gobbling up turf. First he ducked down inside and then veered toward the far rail, like a drunken frat boy on the quad. But while the early pace battle finished Always Dreaming, it also took its toll on Classic Empire. “He went after us pretty ambitiously,” said Pletcher, “and it probably cost him the race.”
Pletcher will ask himself other questions. He is the most successful trainer in history, with $350 million in purses, but remains without a Preakness victory in nine tries. His corporate training empire is built on the careful scheduling and slotting of horses in appropriate races and the two-week gap between the Derby and Preakness is outside his comfort zone. Asked before the race if he would have wheeled Always Dreaming back in two weeks if he had not won the Derby, Pletcher said, “Probably not.” In defeat, he immediately looked back. “He put so much into the Derby that it wasn’t meant to be.” Always Dreaming’s 8th-place finish was the worst by a Derby winner in the Preakness since Super Saver finished eighth in 2010. Super Saver was trained by…. Todd Pletcher.
Cloud Computing becomes the first horse to win the Preakness after skipping the Derby since filly Rachel Alexandra took down Derby winner Mine That Bird in 2009. However, Rachel Alexandra had run the Kentucky Oaks on the day before the Derby and thus was not significantly more rested than other starters. The last Preakness winner with extra rest was Bernardini, who won the 2006 Preakness in which Barbaro broke down (and was euthanized seven months later). Bernardini had three weeks’ rest; Cloud Computing had six.
It is a harsh truth that racing thrives best when a Triple Crown remains in play. That died on the far turn Saturday at Pimlico. It also appears unlikely that Cloud Computing will try the grueling 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont and instead will probably point toward a summer race like the Travers at Saratoga. “Do I think he's a mile and a half horse?” asked Brown. “He's never really struck me that way, but I'm not going to rule it out.” His absence, and the likely absence of Always Dreaming, would leave the Belmont without a Derby or Preakness winner for the first time since I’ll Have Another pulled out in 2012.
The lesson bears repeating and is learned again: There are no certainties in racing. The Brooklyn boys will not race for a Triple Crown at home. A Baltimore kid grown into a rich man has a priceless win and a young trainer has broken through. And horses decide the history.